Exploratory drilling is set to begin today in the St-Lawrence River near Cacouna, Que., even though an environmental assessment has still not wrapped up.

'The most important pipeline in North America is going to be built upon our territory carrying very heavy oil, and what do we get in return?' - Bernard Drainville

Parti Québécois MNAs, including energy and natural resources critic Bernard Drainville, have called on the the environment minister to suspend the work.

The pipeline project is still being evaluated by Quebec’s environmental assessment agency, known as the BAPE.

“Why is the minister of the environment giving the go-ahead without proper scientific foundations?” Drainville said.

Barges have already arrived in Cacouna, with crews getting ready to begin studying the soil composition of the St. Lawrence’s seabed so that a port to transport oil can be built.

The Energy East pipeline is owned by TransCanada, and that company already has the approval from both the federal and provincial governments to do exploratory drilling in a pocket of the St-Lawrence River that is home to a beluga estuary.

Drainville said he didn’t understand what was so pressing for the Liberals to approve the project before the BAPE could finish its environmental assessment.

Beluga estuary

Energy East pipeline

The plan for the Energy East pipeline and ports. (Radio-Canada)

Cacouna, just outside of Rivière-du-Loup, is near the mouth of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The deepwater St. Lawrence estuary is fertile breeding ground for the beluga population.

The beluga whale is a species at risk of extinction and is protected under the Species At Risk Act.

TransCanada is establishing a port at Cacouna to move oil from the pipeline to refineries in Eastern Canada.

The Energy East pipeline stretches 4,600 kilometres from Alberta and Saskatchewan to New Brunswick, running straight through parts of southern Quebec with high population density.

The pipeline is expected to carry 1.1 million barrels of crude oil a day, once its built in 2018.

Drainville said the project isn’t worth the risk of an oil spill.

“The most important pipeline in North America is going to be built upon our territory carrying very heavy oil, and what do we get in return?” he asked at the National Assembly on Wednesday.

The conditions placed on TransCanada by Quebec (via law on quality of environment):

  • Make sure no beluga can be found within 540 metres while drilling.
  • Stop work when belugas are found in proximity, and put in place a method to detect the belugas.
  • Respect limits on underwater noise levels (under 120 decibels at 540 metres) during drilling and respect the maximum above-water noise limit of 45 decibels at the nearest residence.
  • Limit maritime traffic to only one return trip a day between the platform and the shore.