For anyone who examines Québec's energy consumption, notices our dependence on fossil fuels, sees global hydrocarbon market prices and understands their changes, Québec's interest in a natural gas system immediately becomes clear. We often forget that oil is used just as much as electricity is in Québec (40% of total energy consumption in both cases). Natural gas merely accounts for 13% of our energy consumption. If it was more available, it could be used as a substitute for a large amount of oil.
Indeed, natural gas could be incorporated into a strategy to reduce our GHG emissions, especially in urban transportation, vehicle fleets and industrial processes, and to heat buildings, wherever it is extremely efficient. At stake are lower GHG emissions, less pollution from heavier hydrocarbons, and greater energy and economic independence. These are some attractive prospects!
Can shale gas provide Québec with a sustainable supply of natural gas? What are the impacts of extracting shale gas? Is it environmentally and economically sustainable? How much potential does natural gas ultimately have as a substitute for other energy sources in Québec? On what conditions will Quebecers be able to reap maximum economic benefits? How can it be incorporated into a sustainable development strategy? To answer these questions, the shale gas system will have to be examined in its entirety, from its extraction to final use.
This would be a wonderful project for the BAPE, which could request the required studies, publish them and consult the public. Unfortunately, the BAPE is not being asked or given enough time and resources to do so!
The scope of the BAPE's mandate is very limited. It is supposed to propose a development framework for exploration and development, as well as guidelines for a legal and regulatory framework, and report to the government at the beginning of February. This is definitely useful work, especially as concerns the legal framework, which should be amended so that environmental impact studies are required for all oil or gas development projects and review the issues of royalties. But it is not enough.
With such a limited mandate and a short period of time, the BAPE will not be able to perform an in-depth study of the shale gas system that is likely to enlighten the public and decision-makers and guide Québec's energy policy. The OIQ recommends that a real strategic environmental assessment (SEA) be performed so that the environmental factors can be used to develop policies, plans and public programs. Although not widely used in Quebec, SEAs are recognized and very well integrated elsewhere in Canada, Europe and the United States. SEAs consider the cumulative impacts of a group of projects. They are preliminary studies that complement the more detailed impact studies.
So what's the big hurry? A shale gas system cannot be set up overnight. Furthermore, the industry itself needs time to assess the potential for deposits, refine its development methods and prepare detailed impact studies, which are in my opinion essential before any development project can be approved.
Indeed, shale gas has interesting prospects. But are they the extraordinary opportunity that we are led to believe they are? We should take our time and use the proper methods to find out. Not doing so, or rushing through the process, may have the opposite effect and turn off the public to this kind of system for good. It is time to take a new approach and use methods that will make it possible to conduct serious, in-depth work. And that is not opposition to change. That's just common sense.
Maud Cohen, Eng.
President, Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec