Long-time environmental activist and fierce opponent of oil and gas exploration in Quebec, André Bélisle believes that the end of this dying industry, decreed this year by the Legault government, is “a great victory” due to the work of environmental groups and citizens who opposed the plans of companies that never obtained social acceptability.
“The moment citizens stand up to defend their right to quality of life and a healthy environment, it becomes very powerful. It is in the image of Quebec, which is turned towards renewable energies ”, he argues, recalling the mobilization which, according to him, made it possible to stop the development of shale gas.
It must be said that Quebec came very close to embarking on the exploitation of natural gas contained in the deep geological formations of the St.Lawrence lowlands, underlines Mr. Bélisle, who is also president of the Association québécoise de fight against atmospheric pollution. At the turn of 2010, when almost no one in Quebec knew what “hydraulic fracturing” was and there was no environmental framework, there were 450 exploration permits. These permits covered more than 80,000 km2 of territory, including the entire valley of the Saint-Laurent, the island of Montreal, Laval, Quebec, the island of Orleans, the Bas-Saint-Laurent and the Gaspé.
“People saw companies invading the territory, drilling and giving no information, while the Ministry of the Environment slept on gas,” recalls André Bélisle. Proof of the very vivid memory left by this industry, The duty last year met citizens who still fear the return of drills near their homes. The surface structures of the 31 drilled and fractured wells are still there, in some cases leaking methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The industry wanted to drill 20,000 of these shale gas wells over the years.
Even though the Charest government had to agree, at the end of summer 2010, to mandate the Office of Public Hearings on the Environment to conduct a review of the shale gas industry, it remained convinced of the relevance of this industry. The PQ government of Pauline Marois has also campaigned in favor of the development of fossil fuels, mainly by choosing to finance the shale oil research project on Anticosti Island. The latter, canceled under the government of Philippe Couillard, ultimately cost the Quebec state $ 92 million.
If the first version of the electoral program of the Coalition Avenir Québec’s 2018 campaign evoked the desire for “responsible oil exploitation” and the possibility of relaunching “shale gas exploitation”, it is ultimately the government by François Legault who decided this year to definitively close the door to an industry which was already at a standstill.
A bill must also be tabled in 2022 to formalize the end of this saga, but at what price for taxpayers? Both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, Jonatan Julien, have promised to pay compensation to the ten companies that still hold a total of 182 exploration permits, for an area of approximately 32 000 km2 of territory. However, it was not possible to obtain further details from the Minister’s office. “Information on compensation will be provided for in the bill that will be tabled. We will not make any additional comments on this subject for the moment, ”replied Mr. Julien’s office by email.
Despite the government’s decision, companies maintain active lobbying mandates to challenge provisions of the current Hydrocarbons Law, which blocks the way for shale gas projects. This is the case with Questerre, an Alberta company that has also taken legal action against the government.
In a text sent to Duty this week, the president of the Association de l’énergie du Québec (which represents companies in the sector), Éric Tétrault, also affirms that the government seeks to “change the rules of the game” by putting an end to exploration permits. . If it does so without compensating companies, “it would be a disaster for Quebec, whose reputation on the markets would be seriously damaged,” he wrote. He concludes by stressing that the industry could help Quebec fight against the climate crisis, “through innovation and technology”.
Whatever the industry’s demands, André Bélisle welcomes the Legault government’s decision, while maintaining that no compensation should be paid. “These companies took advantage of the lack of knowledge of citizens to try to set up shop. But once people know the risks to their communities, to the environment and to groundwater, they are opposed. And now, we should compensate them, while we must move away from fossil fuels? It’s no. “
He adds that the government will already have to spend millions of dollars to decontaminate and restore the sites of all the wells abandoned by the industry. According to data compiled by The duty, the government should expect to spend at least several tens of millions of dollars over the next few years. He still does not know how much the bill will be for cleaning up dozens of oil and gas wells, several of which have been leaking hydrocarbons for years.
Moreover, the end of exploration and possible exploitation of hydrocarbons does not change the consumption of Quebecers, who import all of their oil and natural gas used. This oil and gas comes from the United States and Western Canada. In the case of gas, much of it is exploited by fracturing, a technique banned in Quebec.