Immature Quebec needs to grow up and get real about oil

The Quebec government has just published its proposed regulations on oil drilling. This 270-page document establishes the “strictest regulatory framework in North America,” according to Energy and Natural Resources Minister Pierre Arcand. These regulations, after consultation, will govern licences and operations for hydrocarbon exploration, production, storage and transport.

We can only applaud this desire for environmental standards that are robust, that are among the most advanced in the world, to govern the development of the oil and gas industry in Quebec.

Unfortunately, there is already an outcry among environmental groups and even from the Quebec Federation of Municipalities (FQM), whose president is criticizing “the total absence of social licence” for all oil and natural gas projects. If social licence meant unanimity, nothing would ever get done again.

Indeed, the protests are not so much directed at the details of the regulations as at the very idea of hydrocarbon production in Quebec.

There are several reasons why it is a sign of great immaturity to want to simply prevent the potential emergence of an oil and gas industry in Quebec. First of all, Quebecers consume over 200 million barrels of oil every year. Importing this oil from countries that often don’t have environmental standards as high as Quebec’s, let alone Quebec’s human-rights standards, is not very “green,” nor is it very “progressive.”

Second, Quebec is now in next-to-last place in Canada in terms of median household income. The salaries paid in the oil and gas sector, though, are much higher than the average. As if by coincidence, Quebec is the only Canadian province (besides Prince Edward Island) that produces no oil or natural gas. The three provinces where this sector is the most developed, namely Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland, are among those that had the greatest real median income growth between 2005 and 2015 (between 24 per cent and 36.5 per cent, versus 8.9 per cent in Quebec). Letting opportunities for wealth creation slip away ends up having a major effect on Quebec’s standard of living.

Third, a majority of Quebecers want the province’s oil resources to be developed, rather than importing them. In a Leger poll released in May 2017, 56 per cent of respondents considered it preferable for Quebec to exploit its own oil resources, versus 20 per cent who favoured continuing to import oil and 20 per cent who preferred not to answer (perhaps because of the cognitive dissonance caused by the recognition that, after all, they consume the stuff).

And fourth, while the much-touted energy transition will eventually arrive, it is still far away. According to the International Energy Agency, global energy demand will increase by 30 per cent between 2015 and 2040. Even if renewable energy plays a larger and larger role, the IEA predicts that the demand for natural gas will increase by 50 per cent over this period, largely at the expense of coal, and the demand for oil will grow by 12 per cent. Quebec will not buck this trend: It consumes hydrocarbons, and will continue to for a good long while.

It’s time to stand up to the vocal minority who suffer from the NIMBY syndrome (Not In My BackYard), or worse, the BANANA syndrome (Build Absolutely Nothing Anytime Near Anything). Let’s establish the necessary safety rules to govern this industry, and then let Quebecers benefit from these natural resources that are at its disposal — even if it upsets those who are opposed to everything, all of the time.

Germain Belzile is a Senior Associate Researcher at the MEI. The views reflected in this op-ed are his own.

Read more articles on the theme of Energy Policies and Environment.

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