Lucien Bouchard, the popular former premier of Quebec, has been tapped to chair the Quebec Oil and Gas Association (QOGA), which is leading the charge to expand exploration in the province’s Utica Shale basin.

Bouchard, who was Quebec’s premier from 1996 to 2001, previously served as Canada’s Minister of the Environment and once was Head of the Official Opposition in the House of Commons. He will replace Andre Caille on Feb. 21 at QOGA’s general assembly. Quebec’s drilling industry is much smaller than its provincial counterparts; QOGA was established less than two years ago in April 2009.

“I view the discovery of major natural gas deposits in Quebec as a highly important opportunity for our economic development and the financing of our state’s missions,” said Bouchard. “At the same time, I’m fully aware of the need to proceed with this development, faithfully observing exemplary requirements from the points of view of the environment, public safety, social acceptability and transparency, seeing to it as well it that this development truly builds our collective, and not just private-interest, wealth.”

Bouchard promised to “diligently schedule intensive meetings with the members of the board of directors to work out the responsible approach they are committed to follow, in particular with regard to the recommendations to come from the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement. I therefore intend to fulfil my mandate by balancing the concerns and issues of all interested parties, but above all with the assurance that I shall work in the best interests of our society as a whole.”

Caille, who has been sharply criticized by those opposed to expanded development — and specifically hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking) — in the shale play, is to remain on QOGA’s board and the executive committee. Last October he was placed under police protection and briefly left QOGA following a contentious hearing before the province’s environment review board, Bureau des audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE).

“I am proud of the work we have accomplished over the past months in driving forward this new development opportunity for Quebec,” said Caille. “My goal has always been to work in Quebec’s best interests. Knowing the work that remains ahead, I am glad to see a man of Lucien Bouchard’s caliber pick up the mantle. I know that he will be able to rally Quebecers around this wealth-creating project.”

Bouchard’s mission as a shale drilling proponent will not be easy. He will be making his case to not only environmental opponents, but also government officials.

Premier Jean Charest late last year assured stakeholders that shale drilling was safe and would bring huge benefits to the province. However, he and Quebec Environment Minister Pierre Arcand earlier this month admitted some concerns about gas leaks discovered by provincial inspectors at some shale well sites.

“The industry is not in control of the situation,” Arcand told reporters (see Shale Daily, Jan. 24).

Until there is more certainty, Questerre Energy Corp., one of Quebec’s leading Utica developers, deferred development on planned drilling projects in the province (see Shale Daily, Jan. 20). A decision about whether to proceed is to be made when BAPE issues a report about shale drilling, which is due in late February (see Shale Daily, Dec. 23, 2010).