Shutting a nuke plant, scuttling asbestos revival and threatening shale gas development
MONTREAL — Within 24 hours of taking office, the new Parti Quebecois government slammed the door on two controversial industries and dropped a hint about shutting down a third.
The government moved to shore up its environmental credibility by promising to shut down an aging nuclear plant that is the only one in Quebec; reiterating plans to scrap a loan that would revive the province’s last asbestos mine; and suggesting that the shale gas industry might never be allowed to operate.
At the same time Premier Pauline Marois sought to mollify critics who feared her government might hurt the economy.
Marois opened her first news conference as premier with a promise of fiscal sobriety. She said she intends to erase the provincial deficit by 2013-14.
In addition to the promises on asbestos and nuclear power, and hints about shale gas, Marois also announced plans to move ahead with the PQ campaign pledge to redraw Quebec’s northern-development plan. The party has promised, among other changes, to increase royalties paid by mining companies.
Natural Resources Minister Martine Ouellet raised eyebrows by hinting about a long-term ban on the province’s fledgling, and contentious, shale-gas industry.
Ouellet said she didn’t believe the method of extracting natural gas from shale, known as “fracking,” can ever be done safely.
“I don’t foresee a day when there will be technology that will allow safe exploitation (of shale gas),” Ouellet said before her first-ever cabinet meeting.
Marois tried to downplay Ouellet’s comments after the inaugural meeting of her cabinet. She said any future decisions would be based on environmental studies that have yet to begin.
Under political pressure, the former Liberal government halted shale-gas exploration last year to conduct more studies on the ecological risks.
That environmental-review process was expected to take a couple of years. Now Ouellet is reiterating her party’s campaign promise to hold broad environmental public hearings on the risks of the sector, on top of the ongoing review.
Until then, she wants the industry to remain idle.
“Our position is very clear: we want a complete moratorium, not only on exploitation but also on exploration of shale gas,” Ouellet said. “We haven’t changed our minds.”
Those remarks earned her a rebuke from the last leader of her own party.
Andre Boisclair, a former PQ leader and environment minister who is now a consultant for Calgary energy company Questerre, said Ouellet appears uninformed about an industry that he insists has proven elsewhere in Canada that it can operate safely.
“Does it mean that Albertans aren’t doing it in a safe way and that the technology that they use isn’t ready yet?” Boisclair told The Canadian Press on Thursday.
“When they hear Martine Ouellet’s comments, you know, they’ll jump to the ceiling.”
Questerre has large investments in Quebec and hopes to eventually exploit gas deposits here.
Boisclair, who led the PQ from 2005 to 2007, said that 30% of the natural gas now used in Quebec comes from unconventional sources, such as shale, outside the province.
Critics of the shale-gas industry fear that the method of exploiting the resource will create serious environmental problems – including the contamination of drinking water and the heavy use of water resources.
The industry insists that extraction chemicals are only used in small doses and the chances of them seeping into the environment are very slim.
Analysts, meanwhile, have called shale gas a potential economic game-changer.
The industry has boasted that the provincial government, which is saddled with public debt, would reap annual royalties of $1 billion from shale gas development.