Quebec shale gas debate heats up

The provincial government says it's moving cautiously toward allowing energy companies to explore the St. Lawrence River Valley.

Ministers shouted down while announcing public hearings

The provincial government says it's moving cautiously toward allowing energy companies to explore the St. Lawrence River Valley.

Shale gas exploration and its impact on the environment and human health have ignited a debate in Quebec. Environment Minister Pierre Arcand and Natural Resources Minister Nathalie Normandeau were confronted by a small but noisy crowd in Montreal as they announced Sunday that the government would launch an environmental study and public hearings into shale gas drilling.

Quebec sits on part of a massive field of natural gas in sedimentary rock that extends from the St. Lawrence lowlands into New York state. Exploitation of this resource could pump money into government coffers and create jobs as new technology — injecting water, sand and chemicals under intense pressure into rock formations to crack them and liberate the gas — makes this energy source economically viable to extract.

"This is a formidable opportunity to exploit and consume a natural gas that is 100 per cent from Quebec," Normandeau said, adding that a homegrown industry could create 10,000 jobs and free billions of dollars the province currently spends to import natural gas.

The government is reviewing potential regulations on exploration for natural gas, and plans to table a bill this spring. Normandeau said there would be no large-scale projects in Quebec before 2014.

Loud opposition

But environmentalists and residents living near gas exploration sites want a stop to all current projects. About 40 protesters repeatedly shouted down the ministers at Sunday's news conference.

Greenpeace Quebec director Eric Darier said in an interview that there are concerns gas could leak into groundwater during the extraction process. He said gas development should be put on hold until legislation is in place.

"In terms of public and political credibility, I think the government should have told the industry there would be a moratorium in place until it's been settled," Darier said. He added that Quebec should focus on renewable energy like wind and solar power rather than embrace non-traditional natural gas. "We're missing the ecological and economic boat here."

Exploratory drilling has already started at a number of Quebec sites.

Shale gas is being hailed as a greener alternative to oil and coal, and is an increasingly important source of energy in North America. But the growing interest has left governments struggling with how to regulate this newly accessible energy source. In June, the House of Commons supported a motion to initiate a comprehensive review of federal rules on unconventional oil and gas development.

And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced in March it would take a close look at the environmental and human health impact of shale gas drilling.