Virtually unknown only a couple of years ago, shale gas has become a very controversial issue. Considered the new oil, thousands of wells have to be drilled and fracked, contaminating millions of litres of water, to extract what is called ‘unconventional gas’. This new fossil gas boom has become a source of nightmares for communities and citizens who want to protect natural habitats, their health and the overall quality of life, especially in rural areas.
As early as April 2009, the AQLPA (Quebec Association Against Atmospheric Pollution) had begun to do research and raise awareness on the shale gas issue. However, in the summer of 2009, Quebecers woke up to find strange white trucks in the quiet towns of Richelieu and Mont-Saint-Hilaire, close to Montreal. All of the Saint-Lawrence Valley (where most Quebecers live) had already been claimed by gas/companies. Quebecers learnt that, with the consent of the government, 20 000 thousand wells were to be drilled over 20 years. Even worse, mayors and town councils found out with dismay that they couldn’t act against it because the Mining Law supersedes the municipal and regional laws. Quebecers informed themselves very quickly about shale gas and its numerous impacts: air and water contamination, increased levels of GHG, use of explosives and cocktails of chemicals, impacts on landslides, deterioration of road- and water-related infrastructures (e.g. water treatment plants), conflicts with ecotourism, and loss of property value.
The grassroot movement won the right to a general inquiry from le Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE), but the mandate had been quite narrowed: BAPE would study only how the shale gas development can be done in Quebec in a sustainable way and not if it should be done. Because the BAPE mandate could not include a recommendation for a moratorium on shale gas, a two-year Environmental Assessment Study (EES) was suggested, but this is without representation from the grassroot movement, and all of the information has to remain confidential.
The picture is clear: on one side, the industry has government support, lots of money, many former public employees from the oil and gas public sector, an ex-Quebec prime minister, a strong lobby and even the Mining Law. On the other side, the grassroot movement has public support, the ear of the media and almost no money.
Grassroots strategies include:
- networking with scientists and citizens’ groups;
- sharing information internationally;
- using all media and communication tools possible to inform the public and organise conferences and workshops;
- fighting some issues in court;
- getting out on the streets regularly to keep the level of awareness high.
As of September 2011, there is still no moratorium, and the drilling of wells is happening, even while the EES committee is working. The grassroot movement is fighting without success to get representatives on the committee and to convince the government that the ÉES must include a comparison of shale gas with the alternatives (green energy) and to assess whether shale gas development is worth pursuing in Quebec. There is no doubt that this analysis would show that the alternative is humanly and environmentally more valuable and less risky than shale gas, with the same results.
Kim Cornellison is an independent researcher, consultant and vice-president of the Quebec Association Against Atmospheric Pollution (AQLPA)