Quebec mayors warn new rules for oil and gas exploration could imperil drinking water

Quebec mayors and environmentalists say proposed new rules for oil and gas exploration and for pipelines fail to protect water sources — and they’re urging the government to go back to the drawing board.

The rules, set out in three sets of draft regulations totalling 270 pages, flesh out the new Petroleum Resources Act passed by the National Assembly last December.

However, the  Quebec Federation of Municipalities (FMQ), which has been lobbying for strict protection of drinking water sources, says the draft rules constitute “a step backward.”

“There’s absolutely nothing in these draft regulations to reassure municipalities and their citizens,” said FMQ President Richard Lehoux. “All they do is stir up more questions and concerns.”

Gaspé Mayor Daniel Côté

Gaspé Mayor Daniel Côté says he’s exasperated by the lengthy regulations which he say will do nothing to comfort citizens worried about the safety of oil drilling near their homes. (Radio-Canada)

In the town of Gaspé, where Petrolia is expecting to move ahead with the development of its Haldimand oil-exploration project, Mayor Daniel Côté is exasperated.

“If the government wanted to ensure that there would not be social acceptability, it’s gone about it the right way,” Côté said.

Petrolia’s Haldimand 4 exploratory well is located about 350 metres from the nearest home in Gaspé — too close for comfort for the town’s residents.

Gaspé is one of 250 municipalities that’s demanded the province establish a two-kilometre residential buffer zone to protect homeowners from drilling.

‘If the government wanted to ensure that there would not be social acceptability, it’s gone about it the right way.’
– Gaspé Mayor Daniel Côté

However, the draft regulations allow for exploratory work to be done as close as 150 metres from a residence.

They also stipulate drilling would not be permitted unless it’s further than:

  • 40 metres from a highway or railway.
  • 175 metres from a concentration of residential, commercial, industrial or service activities.
  • 180 metres from a high-capacity dam.
  • 275 metres from a school or daycare or health-care institution.
  • 60 metres from a national park or a protected area.
  • 1,000 metres from an airport.
Petrolia's Haldimand 4 drill site in Gaspé

Petrolia’s Haldimand 4 drill site in Gaspé (William Bastille-Denis/Radio-Canada)

Protecting water: ‘Which regulation will prevail?’

The draft regulations do not specifically set out any rules about drilling near sources of drinking water; those rules are set out separately in another set of regulations adopted in 2014 and confirmed earlier this month.

The 2014 regulations establish a protective zone of 500 metres from a source of drinking water — not the two-kilometre buffer that municipalities have asked for, but far greater than the 150-metre buffer from residences in the oil-and-gas exploration rules.

“Which regulation will prevail?” asked the FMQ’s Lehoux. “The water regulations or the hydrocarbon regulations?”

“Water can be in great peril,” said FMQ administrator Scott Pearce, who is also mayor of Gore Township in the Lower Laurentians.

‘We find this government has done absolutely nothing so far to protect waterways, and this is just another step in the wrong direction.’
– Gore Township Mayor Scott Pearce

“This goes against basic principles of environmental protection,” aid FMQ administrator Scott Pearce, who is also mayor of Gore Township and prefect of the regional country of Argentueil.

“Water seems to be in peril, from what we can see.  We find this government has done absolutely nothing so far to protect waterways, and this is just another step in the wrong direction.”  

 The senior director of Équiterre, Steven Guilbeault, said he doesn’t understand the government’s reasoning.

 “If you want to install a wind turbine, you can’t put one closer than 750 metres from a house,” he told CBC.  “There are far fewer things that can go wrong if you install a turbine than if you start drilling for oil — in terms of water contamination, in terms of potential explosions.”

“So we can’t put a wind turbine, which is one of the cleanest ways of producing energy on the planet, but you can put up gas drilling equipment or an oil well within 150 metres. It makes absolutely no sense.”

Fracking is a go

The regulations would allow companies to employ hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and set out how it can be carried out.

Among other stipulations, they require that information about the additives used in the fracking fluid be provided, along with their chemical and toxicological properties.

Anticosti Island shale-gas drilling

Quebec environmental groups and people from Anticosti Island successfully fought drilling for shale gas on Anticosti Island. (Radio-Canada)

In releasing the draft rules earlier this month, Quebec’s energy and natural resources minister, Pierre Arcand, said in a statement the regulations would give Quebec “the strictest regulatory framework in North America”.

Two exploration companies, Questerre Energy and Squatex Resources & Energy, cautiously welcomed the draft regulations.

“Our preliminary review suggests these regulations reflect some of the highest standards in North America,” said Michael Binnion, president of Questerre and head of the Quebec Oil and Gas Association, in a statement.

“They are designed to facilitate development while recognizing the importance of protecting the environment and securing local acceptability.”

Squatex, which has extensive permit holdings in the Lower Saint Lawrence, said in a statement that “this framework is in line with Squatex’s priorities” and “will contribute to the growth of the Quebec economy, in respect of the environment.”

Be patient, says David Heurtel

As for environmental groups, Équiterre and the David Suzuki Foundation both say they are baffled by the government’s inconsistency, setting ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gases on the one hand, while encouraging petroleum exploration on the other.

“It makes no sense,” said Equiterre’s Guilbeault. “The proposed regulations should simply be taken off the table.”

Sustainable Development Minister David Heurtel

Sustainable Development Minister David Heurtel says it is too soon to talk about ‘an environmental apocalypse’ out of concern about the regulations, which are still subject to change. (Photo: Radio-Canada)

Sustainable Development Minister David Heurtel said there is still work to be done on the regulations during the 45-day consultation period now underway.  

“Wait for the final product before talking about an environmental apocalypse,” Heurtel said in the National Assembly earlier this month.

Heurtel also reminded critics that all hydrocarbon projects and other “high-risk” projects will now be subject to environmental review hearings, under the new Environmental Quality Act adopted last March.

But Guilbeault said after taking the decision in July to ban oil and gas drilling on Anticosti Island, the government should take the next step and ban all such exploration in the province.

“The world is moving away from fossil fuels, so we should just acknowledge this,” Guilbeault said.

“Instead of having this patchwork of regulations where you can’t do oil and gas on Anticosti, but you could on the Gaspé Peninsula, and you can’t do it in the St. Lawrence River but you can do it just on the side of the river — you know, let’s just be clear and do it and simply ban it. Full stop.”

Petrolia installations at Anticosti

Petrolia announced in June it would do no work planned for last summer at its installation on Anticosti Island. In late July, the government pulled the plug on future drilling for gas and oil on the island. (Evelyn Côté/Radio-Canada)

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