Environmental groups criticize public hearings set to study massive Saguenay LNG project

A coalition of environmental groups is asking Quebec's environmental review agency to widen the scope of its hearings into a $9.5-billion project to build a natural gas facility in the Saguenay.

Consultations begin this month in the Saguenay, but groups say the project will affect the whole province

The project — both the port facility and the pipeline — has divided many in the region, and the province as a whole. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

A coalition of environmental groups is asking Quebec's environmental review agency (the BAPE) to widen the scope of its hearings into a $9.5-billion project to build a natural gas facility in the Saguenay.

As it stands, the BAPE will begin public hearings later this month in the Saguenay.

The hearings will focus only on the plans to build a liquefaction plant by a port, roughly 230 kilometres northeast of Quebec City.

The company behind the project is GNL Quebec, based on the French acronym for liquefied natural gas.

But in an open letter, 42 environmental and community groups say the BAPE should study the proposed Saguenay facility alongside plans to build a 780-kilometre pipeline, which would feed the facility natural gas from Western Canada.

They also want additional hearings held in Quebec City and Montreal, so local concerns aren't drowned out in the process.

"We fear that if there are public hearings only in Saguenay, people from all across Quebec will go there, and then it will be less equitable for people in Saguenay," said Alice-Anne Simard, director of Nature Quebec, one of the groups behind the letter.

"We know that many people all across Quebec want to take part in this process because this is such an important project for the future of this whole province."

Innu groups around Saguenay have expressed concerns about the natural gas project. The pipeline component would cross their ancestral territory. (Priscilla Plamondon Lalancette/Radio-Canada)

In addition, the groups are expressing concern about the impartiality of the environmental review process.

It was revealed recently that one of the two BAPE commissioners in charge of the review, Denis Bergeron, worked for 16 years as a consultant in the chemical industry.

The environmental groups are proposing that a third commissioner be appointed.

Their demands, however, failed to convince the BAPE to change course, at least for the time being. 

The agency defended the impartiality of its commissioners in a statement released on Wednesday. It also said it is rule-bound to hold public hearings in the community where a project is slated to be built.

"The BAPE has a lot of respect for host communities," the statement said.

Long list of environmental concerns 

The project — both the port facility and the pipeline — has divided many in the region, and the province as a whole.

Premier François Legault has been vocal in his support of the project, claiming it will help reduce emissions globally by facilitating exports of liquefied natural gas, which produces fewer emissions than coal.

But environmental groups argue the project will actually increase greenhouse gas emissions. And their concerns don't end there.

"There are, in addition, concerns about local environmental and social impacts of the project along the pipeline route, on endangered species such as the caribou, as well as impacts on the Saguenay River and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, where ships would transport the gas liquefied by the plant," said Caroline Brouillette, a researcher with the environmental lobby group Équiterre.

LNG tankers could soon be sharing the waters of the Saguenay Fjord with the kayaks, cruise ships and cargo ships that navigate through the protected marine park. (Julia Page/CBC)

GNL Quebec maintains its plant will be carbon neutral, and will emit 85 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than similar projects because it will be powered by hydroelectricity.

"The project aims to support the fight against climate change in Europe, Asia, and other parts of the globe by offering transition energy that is cleaner than those currently in use, such as coal and fuel oil," GNL​​​​​​​ Quebec said in a statement. 

Brouillette said that argument is not good enough. 

"Rather than reduce emissions from coal, it is likely to slow down the transition to renewables," Brouilette said, referring to solar and wind energy. 

The BAPE's public hearings begin March 16.


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