With environmental review still pending, Quebec minister touts benefits of natural gas project

The government isn't set to receive instructions regarding a natural gas liquefaction plant continue in Saguenay before January 2021, but the minister responsible for economic development in Quebec's regions is already on board.

GNL Québec natural gas liquefaction plant currently before environmental review board in Saguenay

Public hearings by Quebec's environmental review board on GNL Quebec continue until Friday at the Hotel Montagnais, in Saguenay. (Romy Boutin St-Pierre/Radio-Canada )

Public hearings into the $9-billlion GNL Québec energy project are still underway in Saguenay but it is already being touted within the Quebec government as a boost to the local economy.

Quebec's junior minister responsible for regional development, Marie-Ève Proulx, said the construction of a natural gas liquefaction plant on the shores of the Saguenay river was "a promising project for the future of Quebec."

Proulx also said the project has the overall support of "social, economic and municipal stakeholders."

That is, however, the kind of conclusion that usually comes only at the release of the report by the environmental review board, known as the BAPE, which is only at the beginning of its lengthy review process.

The commission launched its public hearings on Monday in Saguenay and is set to submit its report to the environment minister in January, 2021. The province can then approve or reject the project, based on the BAPE's recommendations.

Proulx's comments came during question period on Wednesday, when Liberal MNA Ruba Ghazal asked what alternatives the minister had to offer workers in Saguenay — other than GNL Québec.

Proulx responded that in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, "there is a very concrete will to move forward with this project."

No guarantees

That support didn't seem as clearcut during the hearings. Dozens of citizens and environmental groups voiced strong concerns over the environmental impact of the project on the region.

The plant would be built on the western shore of the Saguenay Fjord, near La Baie, and would store and liquefy natural gas that would transit through a proposed pipeline, from Northern Ontario to Saguenay.

Around 200 tankers would transit through the port every year to export 11 million tons of LNG to European and Asian markets.

Replacing coal production in these countries would help eliminate 28 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) per year, according to GNL Québec.

But the actual carbon footprint of the project has been at the core of public debate since it was first presented in 2014.

During this week's hearings, Henri Jacob, president of Action Boréale, asked if the company could offer any guarantees Quebec's liquid natural gas (LNG) would actually be replacing coal.

GNL Québec responded it doesn't have the legal grounds to require its buyers to cut coal out of their production.

Countries are, however, seeking transitional energy sources in order to reach the Paris Accord targets, according to Tony Le Verger, vice-president of development and finance.

"And there are important financial and corporate incentives behind those efforts," said Le Verger.

Unclear mandate

While the reduction of greenhouse gases on a global level is central to GNL Québec's sales pitch, the overall discussion got off to a rocky start at the hearings.

The first question asked by the public was addressed to the commission's president, Denis Bergeron.

Alice-Anne Simard, the director of the environmental group Nature Québec, asked whether the BAPE would evaluate the total amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) that would be emitted if the project goes ahead, including the fracking process in Alberta.

The proposed GNL Quebec project would mean an additional 200 ships circulating annually on the Saguenay river. (Julia Page/CBC)

Bergeron responded that Simard would have to wait until the report was published to get an answer.

"You'll have to be patient because you'll have to read this in the report that will be handed over to the [environment] minister in January," Bergeron said.

Adrien Guibert-Barthez, spokersperson with the Coalition Fjord, said the commission's refusal to outline its mandate at the beginning of the process is unacceptable, and limits the scope of the questions citizens feel they can ask.

"It doesn't make any sense at all to not say right now if all GHG will be evaluated," Guibert-Barthez said. 

Experts unavailable

Guibert-Barthez also expected that experts would be on hand to answer some of these questions, which wasn't the case on more than one occastion 

"Seeing that a valid question that should have been addressed to an expert, ended up being a long-winded response from the promoters was very frustrating," said Guibert-Barthez.

The construction of the liquefaction plant would destroy 10 hectares of wetland and 120 hectares of forest. The company has committed to compensate for these environmental impacts and also plans to make its plant carbon-neutral. (GNL Québec/BAPE)

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), for example, was absent from Monday to Thursday. During these days, the themes on the agenda included maritime transportation, endangered marine species and marine safety.

In an email statement, Fisheries and Oceans Canada confirmed a spokesperson was supposed to have been present during the hearings, but for reasons "beyond its control, he was unable to attend the first BAPE hearings this week."

DFO will be responding in writing to all questions concerning its expertise and will participate by video conference for the week's last session, at 1 p.m. on Friday.

The BAPE will start collecting briefs and essays from citizens and local groups starting October 8, and will resume public hearings on October 26, in Saguenay.

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