Quebec government legislation imposing a moratorium on shale gas drilling and fracturing in the Lowlands of the St. Lawrence River was denounced by the opposition, but received mixed reviews from the industry and environmentalists alike.
The moratorium could last five years until a law establishing new rules for hydrocarbon and exploration is adopted.
Opposition parties are crying foul saying that a possible five-year moratorium could undermine major investments in the province. But the government said it wants to make sure that any future projects meet strict environmental guidelines and adequately reassures residents.
The opposition said it plans to amend the bill. The Parti Québécois minority government needs opposition support to adopt the legislation, which revokes all licences and prohibits the issuing of new ones.
The bill tabled on Wednesday also calls for prison terms and stiff fines of up to $1-million for individuals and $6-million for companies found guilty of carrying out work related to shale gas exploration in the St. Lawrence valley extending east from Montreal to Montmagny near Quebec City.
While the richest and most viable natural shale gas deposits are in the Lowlands, it is also a densely populated region. The strongest opposition to exploration surfaced in many rural communities in the area in 2009 when several drilling projects were initiated.
Quebec Environment Minister Yves-François Blanchet explained that the bill responds to the immediate concerns raised by residents in Lowlands. He didn't see the need to extend the moratorium to all of Quebec including Anticosti Island in the Lower St. Lawrence River region where oil exploration is already under way.
"In the case of Anticosti, we aren't talking about a densely populated region where there is a problem of social acceptability [over fracturing]" Mr. Blanchet said.
Last February the minister stated that the government remained committed to a ban on the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. He explained on Wednesday that the government will wait until two environmental assessments are completed, likely by the end of 2014, before determining which steps should be taken.
The Quebec Oil and Gas Association was relieved that the moratorium wasn't extended to oil fracking on Anticosti as well as shale-gas exploration in the Gaspé Peninsula. But the industry lobby group expressed disappointment over the proposal, adding that it remained open to consultations with the government.
"We're not totally discouraged. Progress is being made on oil resources in the province," said the lobby group spokesperson Lindsay Jacques-Dubé. "We feel there are many things in the bill that need to be clarified, both for the companies and for the citizens."
While environmental groups applauded the moratorium, they criticized the decision to exclude all oil and gas projects.
"This bill is certainly not perfect and improvements are possible and desirable especially regarding the exclusion of oil," stated Greenpeace spokesperson Patrick Bonin in a news release, while calling on opposition parties to adopt the bill.
Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard wants changes to the bill and questioned the need to impose a moratorium on industry, which has suspended all operations in the province.
"This is very dogmatic. This is not the way to run the economy of Quebec. It doesn't send an organized view of what economic development should be in Quebec," Mr. Couillard said.
The pro-business Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault contends that even if studies show shale gas development can be proven to be safe, the PQ "is not ready to go forward for any economic development."
Meanwhile left-wing Québec Solidaire MNA Amir Khadir accused the PQ of caving in to oil companies by refusing to extend the moratorium to the entire industry. "The PQ government is too permissive, too weak in front of extremely strong lobbies … The responsibly of the minister is not to protect oil companies … his responsibility is to protect the environment," Mr. Khadir said.
The previous Liberal government of former premier Jean Charest adopted regulations restricting both oil and natural gas fracking exploration. According to Mr. Blanchet, the current bill sets the terms of a rigid moratorium for the Lowlands adding that an environmental review was being planned for Anticosti Island.
Some companies last year halted further investment in exploration of the rich shale gas deposits in the Lowlands. Calgary-based Talisman Energy Inc., for example, said last October it would put a lid on committing further capital to such projects in Quebec.
Others such as Petrolia Inc., threatened to take the Gaspé municipality to court for adopting regulations that prohibited drilling within 300 metres of residential water supplies.
The government adopted a similar regulation Wednesday to protect municipalities from further court action. But Mr. Blanchet was ordered by his cabinet colleagues to postpone the news conference where he planned on making the announcement. Other cabinet ministers were dismayed that Mr. Blanchet would announce a regulation before allowing public consultation from all interested parties as is normal practice for the government.
"There is no dissension. The regulation has been adopted," Mr. Blanchet insisted during a news conference that was called to explain the cancellation of his earlier news conference.
"Bunch of amateurs," stated a CAQ spokesperson after Mr. Blanchet was repeatedly mocked on social media for calling a news conference before consulting his cabinet colleagues.