The Quebec government has announced plans to hold its own hearings on Enbridge Inc.'s proposed pipeline project to bring western oil to Montreal, a move that could raise roadblocks to Alberta's efforts to access new markets for its growing oil production.
Parti Québécois Environment Minister Yves-François Blanchet said Thursday that review would be done simultaneously with the National Energy Board and will allow local citizens and municipalities to make recommendations on how to make the pipeline safe or whether that is even possible.
A senior Enbridge executive said the company understands the need for Quebec to consult on the project, and for the company to reassure the public about its safety.
"It's important that Quebeckers get a good say, and that there's a proper forum for it, so we don't have any real problem with that," Vern Yu, an Enbridge vice-president, told reporters in Calgary.
"We have to work with the Quebec government to make sure that they have a voice at the table and they get the proper input on the project … Obviously what we're most focused on working on is building support within the province for the project, whether it's through the people in the east end of Montreal who are affected by the Suncor refinery, or it's the people in Quebec City looking to further enhance that refinery."
Mr. Blanchet has previously mused that the province could do its own assessment of the project. In an interview with Reuters Thursday in Washington, he said the government needs to have a say on the project and will announce the exact format of the hearings in the coming weeks.
The NEB is carrying out the federal review, and has asked a selected group of people – who qualified through a lengthy application process – to provide written comments and questions. Working under a tight deadline imposed by new federal legislation, the board will hold final oral arguments in October.
Enbridge is proposing to reverse the pipeline to bring western crude to Quebec to feed Suncor's Energy Inc.'s Montreal refinery and the larger Valero Energy Corp. refinery downriver across from Quebec City.
The entry of the provincial government into the pipeline review could create problems for Enbridge, just as British Columbia's opposition to the company's proposed Northern Gateway project has caused political headaches for the company at the other end of the country.
"It is a challenge for them," said Warren Mabee, professor at Queen's University's Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy. "We know that public perception has been shifting toward negative on all these pipeline issues, largely because of the number of spills since 2010 and the number of times we've seen footage of oil or bitumen spilling across driveways."
Montreal-based environmentalist Stephen Guilbeault said the PQ government is caught "between a rock and a hard place" – determined to pursue the green agenda it promised in last year's election but facing pressure from the business community to "put the economy first."
"I think as more people learn about this, the opposition will just continue to mount," he said. "Will it be enough to stop the project? I guess we'll see. Should the PQ say yes, it could come with a high political cost not long before the next election, and I'm sure they are thinking about that."
Valero's Quebec spokesman Michel Martin said the Quebec government understands the project's importance to the province's industrial base, and the need not to impose undue delays. Valero has committed to take substantial volume of crude from the pipeline in Montreal, and then send it by ship down the St. Lawrence to Quebec City.
Mr. Yu said rather than just pipeline companies talking about the economic benefits of the energy business, all Canadians need to believe the oil and gas industry is important.
"There's obviously significant economic impacts. But we also have to demonstrate to Canadians that we can do this safely and efficiently, where the impact to the environment is minimized."