Citizen groups in Quebec are disturbed by the provincial government’s gung-ho approach to shale gas development.

“With shale gas the government refuses to say, ‘Maybe it’s not a good idea,’ and it’s distressing because there are a lot of citizens saying, ‘Stop it!’” said Kim Cornelissen, vice-president of the Quebec Association Against Atmospheric Pollution (AQLPA), speaking before a meeting of the Council of Canadians on October 5.

Cornelissen was making a presentation in the wake of public hearings on Quebec’s shale gas development that began in early October in Saint-Hyacinthe, southeast of Montreal.  Organized by the Commission of Public Hearings on the Environment (BAPE), the meetings have garnered attention not only for the heated discussion between citizens, government and industry representatives, but because hundreds of people have been attending.

“I’ll be honest, I’m very worried,” said Cornelissen, who has also attended the meetings.  She said the BAPE is supposed to be an independent commission, but that in the case of shale gas the commission is sidestepping important questions on risks and consequences in order to move forward quickly with development.

The commission’s mandate, conferred by Pierre Arcand, minister of sustainable development, environment and parks, starts with the assumption that shale gas is a resource the province wants to explore and exploit, and this is precisely the approach that Cornelissen’s organization and other citizen groups are criticizing.

“From what we’ve seen now the president [of the commission] is quite aggressive with the public and is asking the industry to answer the questions,” said Cornelissen.  “There’s a conflict of interest that is quite big there.”

The public’s main questions pertain to the potential for long-term chemical contamination of groundwater and drinking water, since the shale gas exploration and extraction processes involve sending a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals between 500 and 2000 metres underground to fracture the shale and release the natural gas.

Shale gas is characterized by multiple horizontal wells underground, whereas traditional natural gas extraction digs one well to tap into a large reservoir in one place.

Questions also remain with regard to the greenhouse gas emissions associated with drilling and the mass industrialization of rural landscapes.  Cornelissen said nearly 600 permits for exploration have already been granted for most of the territory across southern Quebec, including Montreal, Laval and all of the south shore.

And the way the hearings are being handled could cost the commission a great deal of credibility. “The BAPE is a good idea, in general, but if you pervert it in a way, then people could say, ‘Let’s get rid of the BAPE,’ and that would be a big mistake, so I hope that’s not what is intended,” said Cornelissen.

A moratorium, the central demand of citizens at the Saint-Hyacinthe hearings, has yet to be obtained, but Cornelissen said citizen groups have been learning a lot in the process.  She said that each time a stakeholder makes a move in the debate, citizens learn more about the issue, referring to a threat by the industry to sue the government over a moratorium that was quickly exposed as having no basis.

A moratorium in Quebec would follow a similar hold put on shale gas development in New York State.  Shale gas development has propagated widely across the U.S. in the past several years, with about 500,000 wells in place today in 34 states.  “Last year they were beginning to do films about it,” said Cornelissen.  “I think one of the best ways to reach people is through films and I think Gasland has done its job,” she said, referring to the documentary that chronicles the rise of shale gas in the United States and its consequences.

Though Quebec groups have learned much from the U.S. experience, Cornelissen said she is impressed at how informed people at the hearings have been and stresses that the moratorium request is not a knee-jerk reaction. “[It] is not for nothing,” said Cornelissen.  “We’re asking [the government] to stop.  Let’s see both sides of the issue.  If it’s good, great, we’ll do it.  If it’s not good we won’t.”

On October 5 the call for a moratorium received parliamentary support.  Québec Solidaire member of the national assembly Amir Khadir submitted a petition to the national assembly to enact a full moratorium on shale gas development.  The petition had early momentum and has now received over 18,000 signatures.  It remains open for signatures until December 6.

Cornelissen believes that the best thing concerned individuals can do is to sign the petition to support the moratorium.  “If everybody signs it – there are a lot municipalities asking for it, there are a lot of environmental and social groups asking for it – if everybody keeps on asking for it, they won’t have a choice but to do it.”

Sound: Listen to a shale gas report broadcast earlier this month on CKUT, 90.3 fm with reactions from the Council of Canadians and the New Brunswick Conservation Council.

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