Quebec Just Shut the Door on Shale Gas Development (For Now)

After years of debate and two environmental studies, Quebec’s government has decided not to allow shale oil and gas extraction.

By Simon Van Vliet

Vice News December 18, 2014, 3:00pm

The oil and gas industry was dealt another blow in Quebec this week, as Quebec’s environmental review board the Bureau des audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE) released its assessment report on shale gas. The report points out that the social and environmental risks and costs of shale gas exploitation would outweigh its anticipated economic benefits.

« That’s what we’ve been saying all along, » Association québécoise de lutte contre la pollution atmosphérique (AQLPA) president André Bélisle told VICE. He said the report basically confirms « all recommendations and questions raised by AQLPA » about the potential risks for air, water, and soil quality of shale gas development in the densely populated areas along the St. Lawrence River.

In response to the report, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard announced Tuesday that he did « not see the interest in developing [the shale industry]. » He went on to say, « If there’s no segment of the population that approves of the practice then I don’t see the interest in developing it, » effectively shutting the door on the shale industry in Quebec and signalling a temporary win for opponents of shale gas extraction.

However, business and industry groups—including the Quebec Oil and Gas Association (QOGA)—were quick to respond. In a joint press release several groups asked « the government keep an open door for exploitation of shale gas » and said the government should not base its decision on « a simple cost-benefit analysis by an agency whose main task is to assess environmental impacts. » VICE reached out the QOGA for further comments, but our interview request was declined.

Shale gas exploration in Quebec started in 2008 under the previous Liberal government, when Quebec sold more than 600 exploration certificates to the oil and gas companies—without any public consultation or environmental assessment. At the time, AQLPA was among the first groups to sound the alarm and was already calling for a moratorium and a BAPE investigation into shale gas exploration back in 2009.

It took two more years of growing opposition, stirred up by local residents and environmental groups like AQLPA, before the Liberal government—which was openly in favour of oil and gas development in the province—agreed to a limited environmental study that did not include the relevance of shale gas exploration itself but only its sustainable implementation. The BAPE concluded that there was a lack of information and that a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) was necessary.

While awaiting the result of the SEA launched in 2011, the PQ government—elected in 2012—passed a moratorium on shale oil development in Quebec. This decision resulted in a $250-million lawsuit against the federal government under NAFTA, in yet another demonstration of the energy industry’s eagerness to use the law to protect its interests from opposition.

The SEA report was filed in February 2014, just a few weeks before the provincial election kicked the minority Parti Québécois out of office. It confirmed shale gas development would have « non-negligible » public health risks, which is a weird way to say it would be bad for the environment—mostly water contamination from the toxic chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process—and concluded that « any exploration or exploitation of shale gas in Quebec would raise greenhouse gas emissions. »

The recently released BAPE report goes even further, calling into question the safety of hydraulic fracturing techniques and questioning the potential of shale gas development. In the press release announcing the report’s publication, the commission noted that « it is not demonstrated that exploration and exploitation of shale gas in the St. Lawrence lowlands, with the hydraulic fracturing technique, would be advantageous for Quebec because of the level of costs and the potential externalities in comparison to royalties that would be perceived by Quebec. Other preoccupations remain as well, amongst others, in terms of social acceptability, legislation and with regards to knowledge acquisition, notably on water resources. »

« There is proof that you can’t have any control on hydraulic fracturing at the exploration stage, » AQLPA president Bélisle asserted. « It’s a major problem in terms of air pollution and in terms of risk for the groundwater tables. »

In 2011, a Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) report had already found that 19 out of 31 exploratory shale gas wells were leaking. At this rate, the exploitation of the 8,000 to 12,000 wells planned by the industry across Quebec would leave behind a toxic legacy of leaking wells for decades.

While the risks have been clearly established, the potential economic gains are still unproven. Not long ago, the Quebec government was actively moving forward with oil and gas exploration, hoping to confirm the commercial potential of shale gas and shale oil deposits in Quebec.

However, opponents to Quebec’s shale plans cast doubt on their economic viability. « If there was such an interesting potential, how can you explain that Shell, BP—the so-called majors—didn’t show up? » Bélisle asked rhetorically. With oil prices plummeting, the prospect of a commercially viable development in Quebec seems more and more unlikely. And if what’s happening south of the border is any indication, the shale boom might not last very long—that is, if it ever starts.

« It’s dead, » Bélisle said about the oil and gas industry’s big plans for extraction in Quebec. « There’s no infrastructure that allows this exploitation. » This echoes what environmental activist Maude Prud’Homme said last week in an interview with VICE on the latest developments in one of the most advanced extraction projects in the province: « Right now, there’s not one oil project that’s doing well in Quebec, » she said.

With the Premier apparently shutting the door on shale development for now, it remains to be seen if Quebec will join New York and in New Brunswick and propose a full ban on fracking altogether. In the meantime it looks like the 300 trillion cubic feet of gas trapped in Quebec’s Utica shale formation will stay put, and potential environmental risks have, for now, been avoided.