The companies involved in Quebec's controversial move into shale gas exploration met with stiff opposition from local residents at a public meeting in Bécancour, east of Trois-Rivières, Tuesday night.

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Residents line up to ask questions and voice concerns at a public meeting on shale gas Tuesday. ((CBC))

There was standing room only as about 200 people living near exploration sites crammed into a hotel conference room to voice their concerns and fears about shale gas.

"What we're asking for is a moratorium — to stop everything," one man said, garnering cheers from the crowd at Tuesday's meeting.

Luc Villeneuve, from the Quebec Foundation for Renewable Energy in the Beauce, stepped up to the microphone and said Quebec's foray into shale gas is like playing with assisted suicide, with nobody acting to stop it.

Bécancour sits on a large shale deposit, and digging has begun in the area.

Tuesday's meeting, organized by the Quebec Oil and Gas Association, was dominated by calls from the public for a moratorium on shale gas exploration until more scientific studies are done to assess the environmental impacts.

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 fracking.

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.

The provincial government has ordered its environmental protection agency — known as the BAPE — to review the practice and to hand in a report to government officials by February 2011.

Natural Resources Minister Nathalie Normandeau has also said there will be no large-scale shale gas projects before 2014, when strict regulations will be in place.

Quebec has chastised the Quebec Oil and Gas Association for how it proceeded with its drilling, without informing residents before work began.

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André Caillé, president of the Quebec Oil and Gas Association, addresses the crowd at Tuesday's meeting. ((CBC))

André Caillé, the well-known former head of Hydro-Québec and now the head of the association, handled questions from the crowd, saying Quebec is simply trying to produce its own gas instead of constantly relying on Alberta.

He incited boos when he said "the good lord" gave Quebec natural gas as a clean energy source.

"I think it's a real danger," Anne-Marie Handfield said. She lives on a farm in the area, and is worried her groundwater will be contaminated.

The industry and government could have done a better job of informing the public, said Paul Myers, CEO of Cambrian Energy, one of the companies drilling test wells in Quebec.

Myers, however, is dead against a moratorium.

"I would say it's in the province's best interest to get through that education process as quickly as possible with our help because if it goes on too long, the money will just go somewhere else," Myers said.

He said Quebecers should not be worried about fracking because the process happens deep below the water table and wells are lined with concrete.

The oil and gas association will host two more public meetings, one on Sept. 21 in Saint-Édouard-de-Lotbinière, east of Bécancour, and the second on Sept. 28 in Saint-Hyacinthe, southeast of Montreal.