In Abitibi, the debate over Énergie Saguenay's proposed natural gas pipeline rumbles on

As scientists and environmental activists line up against Gazoduq, the promoter of the pipeline that would cross the region, the mayor of Rouyn-Noranda say the city's 'not ready to take a formal position' on the project.

As scientists and environmental activists line up against Gazoduq, municipalities play 'wait and see'

Sophie Laliberté, a forestry researcher and biologist at UQAT, points out the path of the proposed pipeline. (Julia Caron/CBC)

Énergie Saguenay, a proposed $14-billion pipeline and LNG terminal, is the largest private investment project in recent Quebec history. But do Quebecers want it? As part of a CBC Quebec series, Julia Caron travelled to the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region to find out what's at stake.

Sophie Laliberté walks along a narrow path cut through the brush and brambles, leaves in the tall trees overhead rustling in the early fall wind.

Cap de roches, this little rocky hill, is just five minutes from the biologist and nature lover's home in Cléricy, about 20 minutes from Rouyn-Noranda.

"Up there, there's kind of a field," says Laliberté, gesturing to a spot in the distance. "It's actually an old mine."

She points south.

"Here you see the Kinojevis River," she explains. "This river's going to be crossed by the Gazoduq pipeline."

The proposed pipeline looms large in Laliberté's mind, as it does in the minds of many people in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region.

Gazoduq plans to build a pipeline extension from northern Ontario to the Saguenay Fjord, carrying Alberta natural gas 782 kilometres from Ramore, Ont., through the Abitibi and part of the Mauricie before reaching the deep inland Port of Saguenay.

There, the gas is to be liquified and shipped by tankers down the Saguenay Fjord and onto the St. Lawrence River, bound for overseas.

On an early fall afternoon, Laliberté and her dog Chat-d'eau admire the view of the lush forests of the Abitibi region. (Julia Caron/CBC)

Laliberté has studied Gazoduq's maps closely, even downloading new software so she could pinpoint exactly the pipeline's eventual path, should the project proceed.

That could happen as early as 2022.

As a scientist working at the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (UQAT), Laliberté knows full well both the benefits and drawbacks of natural resource extraction and infrastructure projects like this one.

"If the pipeline goes ahead, it's not the end of the world for us here," she says. "But we can't keep doing these kinds of massive projects that have accelerated climate change."

Too little, too late

Marie-Ève Sigouin, a forestry engineer, says governments have to take the initiative to encourage businesses to choose renewable energy over CO2-producing options. (Julia Caron/CBC)

Like Laliberté, Marie-Ève Sigouin has a close connection to nature, as well as to the industries that rely on and exploit the region's natural resources.

A forestry engineer, Sigouin has worked with mining companies to help them reduce their carbon footprint and shift towards more renewable energy sources.

That shift is happening far too slowly for her liking, however.

"The irony is that we are in a mining region," she says ruefully. "Why aren't we into geothermal energy? We have all the drills!"

Both Laliberté and Sigouin argue that as long as politicians at all levels refuse to encourage companies to use more environmentally friendly renewable energy options, such as hydroelectricity or biomass, Quebec's — and all of Canada's — reliance on fossil fuels will persist.

Sigouin said she recognizes that natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than oil or coal, but it is not nearly clean enough.

Gazoduq, she said, markets the proposed pipeline as a project with a 25-year lifespan, in the transition to cleaner forms of energy. But she says that's too little, too late.

Marie-Ève Sigouin was one of 120 protesters who recently unfurled an anti-Gazoduq banner near the Ontario-Quebec border where the proposed pipeline would cross. (Julia Caron/CBC)

Sigouin, who helped organize a recent protest in opposition to the pipeline project in September, is now challenging the city of Rouyn-Noranda to take a firm stance in opposing the project.

The city has taken environmentally friendly initiatives, such as introducing compost bins and adding bike lanes. But Sigouin says it's time the city showed a true commitment.

She and others presented Rouyn-Noranda's city council with a petition. However, Mayor Diane Dallaire said the city "isn't yet ready to take a formal position" on the pipeline project.

"We share the concerns of our citizens when it comes to this project," said Dallaire in an interview with CBC. "It's a mixed bag."

"From the city's standpoint, we've had a very good relationship with the company behind the project. They've addressed our concerns, so far."

Rouyn-Noranda Mayor Diane Dallaire said the city 'isn't yet ready to take a formal position' on the pipeline project. (Julia Caron/CBC)

Those concerns include how exactly Rouyn-Noranda stands to benefit from the pipeline, which will pass just a few hundred kilometres north of the municipality.

The company says there will be "a few thousand jobs" during the construction period, but it will have a clearer picture once the impact study is done.

Promises of jobs might not matter in a region where the worker shortage is only worsening.

The unemployment rate currently stands at a low 3.8 per cent, and many businesses have had to go hunting far afield for employees to stay in operation.

Money for charities and other good causes

In mid-September, the company announced that the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region can expect $14 million in other economic benefits as a result of the pipeline, including about $3 million annually for charitable organizations and education funds, if the project goes ahead.

In response to that announcement, the MNA for Rouyn-Noranda–Témiscamingue, Québec Solidaire's Émilise Lessard-Therrien, accused Gazoduq of "buying social acceptability" for the pipeline.

But some municipal leaders were impressed.

"The amount of money was surprising, but what is more remarkable, from where I stand, is the openness on behalf of those involved in the company, and how they are listening to our concerns," said Pierre Corbeil, the mayor of Val-d'Or, 100 kilometres east of Rouyn-Noranda.

Corbeil also strongly believes that the natural gas project will help shift away from "dirtier" energy sources like oil and coal, and he doesn't understand why so many people in the region oppose the project, given it's transitional nature.

The Glencore Horne smelter looms large in Rouyn-Noranda, not far from the picturesque Osisko River. (Julia Caron/CBC)

Gazoduq's next steps

Gazoduq still has to submit its project for environmental analysis.

It hasn't yet committed to a plan to offset or mitigate greenhouse gas emissions along the pipeline path. Company spokesperson Marie-Christine Demers says Gazoduq will consider that later, as it's still in the process of quantifying expected emissions.

In reaction to the concerns laid out by local citizens, Demers said Gazoduq is acting in a "fair and equitable way, finding ways to redistribute benefits through our host communities."

"We understand that people have questions — for instance, towards security, explaining why natural gas can be a transitional energy source at the international level, and so on," she told CBC.

"We want to make sure people understand that we understand that it is important."

The company plans to set up a regional liaison office in Rouyn-Noranda, to have a presence in the community and ease residents' concerns.

There's no word yet on exactly when that office will be set up, but the company said it hoped to have it up and running before the end of the year.

Here are more stories in CBC's in-depth look at the LNG project:


Julia Caron

Host of Quebec AM

Julia Caron is a journalist, radio-maker and art lover based in Quebec City. Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Julia has lived in over a dozen military towns growing up. She has called Quebec City home since 2008, and proudly calls herself a franglophone (yes, it's a thing).