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Quebec Officials Question Safety of Shale Drilling

After months of extolling the potential of the Utica Shale to bring jobs and revenue to Quebec, provincial officials on Friday changed course, warning that natural gas development may not be allowed to proceed.

The announcement follows a recent report indicating that there were some minor gas leaks at 19 of 31 shale gas wells drilled in the province. It also comes just days after Questerre Energy Corp., whose primary focus is the Utica Shale in Quebec, said it would defer two projects in the St. Lawrence Lowlands pending results from a provincial report on shale gas development that is to be completed (see Shale Daily, Jan. 20). Quebec's environmental agency, the Bureau d'audiences publiques sur l'environnement (BAPE) is scheduled to issue a report by Feb. 28.

"The exploitation of shale gas will be correctly on our territory or it won't happen," Premier Jean Charest said in a news conference with reporters.

Separately Environment Minister Pierre Arcand also told reporters that he was "extremely concerned" that the energy industry "is not in control of the situation."

In November and December inspectors from Quebec's Natural Resources Department examined all of Quebec's shale gas well sites and reported that all of them were "acceptable" and well secured. However, 19 of the wells were leaking small amounts of gas inside the wells' casings; 11 wells had minor gas migration problems.

The prime minister's change in attitude Friday apparently came after reports that Talisman Energy Inc. still had not fixed a gas leak discovered by inspectors last year at a well in Leclercville, which is southwest of Quebec City.

Arcand said his department would send inspectors to all of the well sites again to ensure they are safe and functioning properly. However, a moratorium on drilling, which has been pushed by some landowners and environmental groups, is not appropriate at this time, he said.

The Charest government still favors shale gas development, he said, but he also warned that there would be no compromise on safety and health.

"It would be very awkward for me to substitute myself for the BAPE," Arcand said. "My role is to protect the health and safety of Quebecers." If shale gas drilling were found to pose a threat, "I would ask the premier to stop this industry...I'm there to ensure there is no harm to health and safety of citizens," adding that he has begun to "ask questions."

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