Proposal to pipe fracked natural gas from Alberta to Saguenay, Que., under scrutiny

Opposition in Quebec is mounting to a $9-billion project supported by the premier and seen as a concession to Alberta, with scientists and government experts warning the project's proponents are vastly underestimating carbon dioxide emissions.

Proponents of $9B pipeline and refinery project vastly underestimate CO2 emissions, scientists warn

Among the concerns raised by the liquefied natural gas project in Saguenay, Que., are the effect of tanker ships on belugas in local waterways. ( Associated Press)

Opposition is mounting in Quebec to a $9-billion pipeline and refinery project that would carry natural gas from Alberta to a new facility in the province's Saguenay region.  

On Monday, more than 150 scientists published an open letter in Le Devoir and the National Observer seeking to debunk claims by promoters that the project will benefit the environment.

That claim has been repeated by Premier François Legault, who has indicated he is favourable to the project, believing it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the long run by displacing coal. 

"Natural gas is a transition energy," Legault said Monday in the National Assembly, responding to a question from the opposition.

Legault has also pointed to the natural gas project while attempting to diminish western Canadians' anger at his refusal to consider the construction of a cross-Canada oil pipeline through his province. He says often that there is no social acceptability for oil pipelines in Quebec. 

But now, as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney prepares to give a speech about energy policy in Montreal next week, the natural gas project is also coming under heavy scrutiny.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is to give a speech about energy policy in Montreal next week. (Amber Bracken/The Canadian Press)

Environmental benefits questioned

There are two dimensions to the project. One is a proposed 750-kilometre extension to Saguenay of a natural gas pipeline that already connects Alberta to northern Ontario. That segment would be built by Gazoduc Inc.

The second is the construction of a refinery and port facility in Saguenay, about 200 kilometres north of Quebec City, to be built by Énergie Saguenay.

Regulatory bodies at both the federal and provincial level are reviewing the proposals. 

In their open letter, the scientists said the promoters have vastly underestimated the amount of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the projects.

According to regulatory filings submitted to the Quebec government, the proponents estimate the refinery will add only 7.8 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions to Quebec's annual inventory.

But that figure, the scientists said, doesn't include gas emissions released during the fracking and transport process (so-called fugitive emissions). It also doesn't include the emissions added to the environment when the liquefied natural gas is used.

Were those two factors considered, the true impact of the project would not be 195 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions over 25 years, but 1.8 billion tonnes, says an explanatory note to the letter.

Map showing the proposed Energie Saguenay pipeline that would carry liquefied natural gas from Ramore in northeastern Ontario 750 km east to a refinery in Saguenay, Que. (Gazoduq)

"[T]his corresponds to the CO2 emissions that 382,377,919 cars would generate on average over a one-year period," it adds.

"These facts are thoroughly inconsistent with the claim that [the project] would be part of the solutions to ecological emergency."

Preliminary findings from the government's own experts also questioned the promoters' claim that Énergie Saguenay will be among the cleanest natural gas refineries in the world.

In a recent filing, officials within the Environment Ministry's climate expertise division said that claim is based on the refinery using hydroelectricity, and it fails to account for all emissions related to the project.

They estimated just getting the natural gas from sites in Alberta to the Quebec refinery would release the equivalent of 7.1 million tonnes of CO2 into the environment every year.

Scientists say there has been a steep increase in the number of deaths of pregnant female belugas and their calves in the last decade. They add it is important to preserve their environment and avoid putting more stress on them. (Darryl Dick/The Canadian Press)

"When all the steps in the LNG production chain are taken into consideration … the total GHG emissions of the project are within the average of similar projects around the world," said the filing.

A separate group from Quebec's Ministry of Parks, Fauna and Forests raised concerns about the amount of noise pollution belugas would be exposed to by the increase in tanker traffic in the Saguenay River.

Results of review expected by end of year

In a statement, Énergie Saguenay stressed the preliminary nature of the findings by the government experts and said they would provide officials with more information.

Quebec's environment minister, who has also made favourable comments about the project in the past, said it was still too early in the approval stage to weigh in on its value.

Benoit Charrette did say, however, that upstream and downstream emissions won't have a direct bearing on the government's decision.

"When it comes time to decide, it will be the emissions produced in Quebec that will be considered," Charrette said Monday. "But we'll keep the global scope of the project in the back of our mind."

He said he would offer a more concrete opinion on the project by the end of the year, following public hearings by Quebec's environmental assessment agency, known by its French acronym, the BAPE.


Jonathan Montpetit is a Senior Investigative Journalist with CBC News, where he covers social movements and democracy. You can send him tips at

With files from Cathy Senay at the National Assembly