The Métropolitain

Fracking for natural gas is key to wealth creation in Quebec

Par Robert Presser le 9 juillet 2018

While many Quebeckers like to unplug in the summer and turn their backs on politics, in a few weeks they can expect representatives from the Quebec Liberals, PQ, CAQ and Quebec Solidaire to begin breaking into their peaceful hazy days.  There will be no avoiding the October 1st provincial election, and one of the major issues will be economic development and wealth creation in Quebec.

Francois Legault of the CAQ reminds voters at every turn that Quebec’s finances only appear healthy because we receive $11 billion in equalization payments under the current regime.  Our $2 billion budget surplus would really be a $9 billion deficit if we did not have the generosity of the rest of Canada to fall back on.  Legault feels that this weakens Quebec’s place within Canada and is an embarrassment; he wants to invigorate the Quebec economy, promote entrepreneurship, innovation and new investment.  So why is no one talking about our great underground potential, natural gas?

Quebec has access to the Utica Shale deposit, a vast territory that runs along the Appalachian Mountains all the way from Quebec into Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio.  It is estimated that the entire Utica Shale deposit has 15.7 trillion cubic feet of potential gas deposits.  Test wells drilled between 2006 and the imposition of a moratorium on fracking imposed in 2012 were overwhelmingly positive and Forest Oil declared that it’s assets alone in Quebec could represent 4 trillion cubic feet of deposits.  Do these figures entice anyone?  Well, the Quebec government has twisted itself into a pretzel with regulations followed by interdictions preventing any further development, largely to placate the environmental lobby that would rather have us hauling freight by oxcart than allow clean fuel development in Quebec.  The Couillard position is now so incomprehensible that they prefer to bury the issue and hope that it stays that way until after the election.  The Liberals are already well behind in popular support and reversing course on the fracking issue would weaken their support with the green-at-all-costs community.

Natural gas in Quebec is largely brought in from the US, and we get a significant portion of it from tight gas wells that require fracking for extraction.  So, we are OK with fracking if it is done far away from our territories and we do not identify it as such.  Would Quebeckers feel differently if their gas bill came labelled like cigarette cartons, with dire warnings of what gas from fracking could do to them?  Maybe their wallets would still win out; the Canadian Energy Research Institute found that the gas from Quebec Utica would be the second lowest cost of supply in North America while Quebec currently has one of the highest prices of natural gas in North America.

There is significant bias against the use of gas in Quebec, where electricity generated by hydro is king.  However, gas is still a highly efficient, clean source of power – it is cheaper to heat your apartment with a forced-air natural gas furnace than inefficient electric radiators distributed along the periphery of the space.  No matter, though – the hydro lobby will work to suppress natural gas by preying on fears that fracking is unsafe.

There are ways to responsibly develop our natural gas deposits via fracking without endangering the water table.  What is irresponsible is to dismiss this great potential for energy independence and economic development out of fear and political collusion to suppress a responsible review of the risks versus the rewards.  It’s not like we have a whole host of enticing alternatives for wealth creation in this province; we have lower rates of participation in higher education, entrepreneurship and business formation, foreign direct investment and exporting enterprises than our surrounding provinces and US states.  If Legault is going to make a go on his promise to make Quebec a “have” province, then the opportunity of direct investment in local natural gas exploration and extraction is going to have to be a pillar of his economic development platform.

Most importantly, natural gas development in Quebec would bring new, well-paying jobs to, initially, the lower St. Lawrence and eventually to manufacturing industries across Quebec like metal transformation and services like transportation.  For the small towns of Quebec who have seen people and jobs move elsewhere, natural gas exploration in Quebec offers hope for rural areas where, coincidentally, there is also significant support for the CAQ.

Some may remember the Great Whale hydroelectric development project championed by Robert Bourassa in the 1980s.  It was going to produce another 3,000 megawatts of clean power for the export market and would have allowed the early-shut down of dirty coal-fired power plants in the US.  Opposition by the Cree Indians forced the cancellation of that project; no politician has dared to venture reviving it since.  Opportunities like Utica Shale natural gas or Great Whale hydro come along so rarely that we need a Quebec politician who will take the political risk and tell the truth to voters about the potential this project represents and how it can significantly augment our future economic prospects.  Quebec is a have-not province, but with an honest review of natural gas development we can embark on a path to ending our status as the poster-child for equalization payment largesse.

When a Quebec politician rings your doorbell this summer, do not dismiss him or her contritely; ask them about Quebec natural gas and how they feel it fits into our model for the future, let’s get it back at the front of our development agenda.

Robert Presser is executive vice-president of Acme Engineering