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Quebec Board Says Shale Development Not Worth The Risk -- Yet

Quebec's environmental review board says shale gas development and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) aren't worth the risk because they don't outweigh the financial gain from royalties, but it hinted that drilling is desirable once the government and industry build trust with the province's citizens.

According to the Bureau d'audiences publiques sur l'environnement (BAPE), a total of 28 public hearings were held between March and June to discuss the merits of shale gas development in Quebec's portion of the Utica Shale, which is located in the St. Lawrence lowlands. An inquiry commission for BAPE said it received 127 responses from individuals, groups, organizations and municipalities concerned about shale development.

"The commission found that it was not shown that the exploration and exploitation of shale gas in the lowlands of the St. Lawrence, [through fracking], would be advantageous for Quebec because of the magnitude of the potential costs and externalities compared to royalties that would be collected by Quebec," BAPE's inquiry commission said in a translated statement Monday.

In a 546-page report, the commission said it was concerned about legislation and the social acceptance of fracking, adding that scientists needed to more learn about the practice and, in particular, its effect on water resources.

"For the commission, the restoration of trust between citizens, industry and government agencies is a must. [It is a] prerequisite for social acceptability of these activities in the territory," BAPE said.

On the issue of legislation, the commission said the province's Mining Act is "not suitable for hydrocarbons" and that a new hydrocarbons law needed to be written to clarify how the industry would receive authorization and permits to drill, and where the drilling would be allowed.

"If the industry [takes] off in Quebec, it would not be until a legislative framework and appropriate regulatory [framework], involving local and regional authorities, [are] adopted," BAPE said. "The exploration and exploitation of shale gas in the territory [should be subject to a] rigorous and transparent application [process] that meets many requirements."

BAPE said Quebec is currently revising several of its laws -- including the Law on Planning and Development and the Civil Protection Act -- and was developing a hydrocarbons law. Combined, the commission said, those actions "would provide the opportunity to [change the industry's activities]; to ensure the coherence of [Quebec's] planning tools; the sustainability of ecosystems and biodiversity; [and] the security of persons and property, while gauging the potential contribution of its development to the collective wealth of Quebec society."

The commission said that before any water withdrawals are made -- from rivers in the lowlands -- to support shale gas drilling, Quebec's Ministry of Sustainable Development, Environment and Parks needs to make sure it has enough knowledge of current withdrawals and the needs of local ecosystems, which are impacted in times when there is a drought.

"Gaps in knowledge on the intermediate zone, between [the] shale gas and surface aquifers, [is] critical in assessing potential contaminant migration pathways," BAPE said. "[It] should be addressed by mapping existing natural fractures in the rock formations."

Quebec has moved slowly on shale development and fracking, as the provincial government's position on the issue changes with each new regime.

In 2011, when the Liberal party was in power and Jean Charest served as premier, the Quebec government launched a two-year study of shale gas development and allowed fracking only for exploration purposes (see Shale Daily, March 10, 2011). But the Parti Quebecois (PQ) campaigned on a promise to shut down shale development and came to power in 2012. A moratorium was enacted in early 2013 (see Shale Daily, Feb. 8, 2013).

Despite the moratorium, PQ leaders announced last February the creation of two joint ventures between the government and four oil and gas producers to drill wells on and offshore Anticosti Island, located at the outlet of the Saint Lawrence River in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence across from Gaspesie (see Shale Daily, Feb. 21).

The Liberals returned to power after elections in April, this time with Philippe Couillard as premier. Since then speculation has grown that the province may allow fracking in other parts of the province, although Couillard has been on record as saying he opposes the practice in environmentally sensitive areas (see Shale Daily, April 8).

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