Quebec's Ministry of Natural Resources has found leaks in more than half the shale gas wells it inspected, according to a report compiled for the province's environmental protection agency.

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Quebec has granted dozens of oil and gas companies exploratory permits to drill in the lowlands along the St. Lawrence River. ((CBC))

Of 31 wells inspected, 19 showed "natural gas emissions," according to the 35-page report dated Dec. 7. The report is available to the public in French on the website of BAPE, Quebec's environmental protection agency.

According to Article 60 of the Quebec Mining Act, "if a well is closed temporarily it must be left in a condition that will prevent a fluid or gas flow from the well."

The nature and the extent of the emissions are not clear and nobody at the ministry was available to comment.

"In the document ... they just write 'natural gas emission' ... well, we have to know exactly what kind of gas it is," said André Belisle, president of the Quebec Association Against Atmospheric Pollution.

He believes the emissions are probably methane, which Belisle said are much more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide.

Belisle said the leaks are proof more scientific studies need to be done to assess the environmental impact of shale gas exploration in Quebec.

"It proves that we're totally right when we ask for a moratorium," said Belisle. "Things have been going too fast and all kinds of problems are occurring everywhere from all sides."

Belisle is demanding the government reveal more information about its test results.

"We have [issued] permits believing everything would go right ... we know now that it doesn't," said Belisle.

Along the river

Quebec has already allowed gas exploration in low-lying regions along the St. Lawrence River, where there are deposits of the gas trapped in shale bedrock.

Extracting shale involves blasting water and chemicals under intense pressure into rock formations deep below the Earth's surface to liberate the gas, in a process called "hydraulic fracturing," or fracking.

According to the report by the Ministry of Natural Resources, there are 603 drilling exploration sites in the province, with some dating back to the 1950s.

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The St. Lawrence River's south shore is home to fertile farmland and rich shale deposits. ((CBC))

The wells that were found to have leaks belong to Talisman Energy, Gastem, Canbriam, Questerre and Canadian Forest Oil and date back to 2006.

They are located in three main regions targeted by the oil and gas industry for shale gas exploration, including the regional county municipalities of Lotbiniere and Becancour southwest of Quebec City, and Les Maskoutains northeast of Montreal.

Alberta-based Talisman Energy owns 11 of the wells cited in ministry's report, but spokesperson Hope Deveau-Henderson said leaks are a common occurrence.

"We drill wells to produce gas, to flow gas. Sometimes that gas can flow out of the well. If there are indications of that we address it," she said.

Deveau-Henderson confirmed the emissions are methane but added workers are trained to deal with that type of leak and said they are a normal part of the exploration process.

"It's not unusual to have gas flows, or the potential for gas flows," she said.

BAPE asks for clarification

Earlier this year, the government ordered the BAPE to put the shale gas industry under the microscope, and report back with recommendations on how to develop the industry.

The report is expected in February 2011.

On Dec. 22, the BAPE sent a letter to the Natural Resources Ministry looking for certain clarifications based on its report.

A BAPE commissioner asked ministry officials to provide details on the inspections and what observations were made for each well. It goes on to say "can you also specify where the gas emissions were coming from? What are the consequences and risks of such emissions, and what corrective measures, if any, you ordered?"

The letter asks a reply be sent by Jan. 7, but Delisle thinks the only solution is a moratorium.

"You can see it just like us," he said, noting more than half the sites inspected had problems.