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Despite the Legault government’s many public pronouncements regarding the post-pandemic economic recovery and the importance of promoting the economic growth of rural regions, it took the contrary decision this week to reject GNL Québec’s Énergie Saguenay project. Yet this project would have represented the largest private investment in the history of the province, created thousands of jobs in the Saguenay region, and contributed to the reduction of global GHG emissions, in addition to paying into the public coffers year after year to help finance our cherished public services.
Ideological decisions have to stop
Since the start of discussions surrounding the project, a veritable outcry has been orchestrated by activist groups. Whereas consultations were ostensibly aimed at evaluating the social acceptability of the project in the region, it is these activists who seem to have had the last word. In such a context, can we imagine a single project, anywhere in Quebec, that will be given the green light to proceed?
Indeed, the residents of the region as well as their municipal representatives, including the City of Saguenay, wanted to see this project happen. This is perfectly understandable given the high-quality jobs that it would have created in the region.
Opponents essentially argue that the project would increase the province’s GHG emissions, which would undermine the fight against climate change. However, the very premise of their argument is false. We simply cannot look at climate change as a purely provincial problem; it is a global phenomenon. Énergie Saguenay was to liquefy Canadian natural gas using our hydroelectricity and export it to European and Asian markets in order to, among other things, replace many coal plants that emit far more GHGs. Looking solely at the project’s increased GHG emissions in Quebec is thus very short-sighted.
While it is true that the developer is not in a position to share a list of future clients, this is normal considering that the project was not approved yet. Can we blame potential clients for not confirming their interest while regulatory uncertainty was hobbling the project? Since the global demand for natural gas will increase by more than 29% by 2040, it’s clear that buyers were simply being prudent by turning to developers located in countries where projects actually get built.
The government’s decision is all the more disappointing given that the Saguenay has a GDP per capita well below the provincial average, and an unemployment rate that’s constantly among the highest in the province in recent years. The Énergie Saguenay project would have created interesting possibilities for the workers and the youth of the region.
A wake-up call is needed
Now that political decision-makers have said no to a project that could have become one of the crowning jewels of our economy, we need to let the dust settle and then engage in some sober thinking about our aspirations as Quebecers. Too often, we pit environmental protection and economic growth against each other, as if they were always mutually exclusive. However, when we take the time to properly analyze different projects, we can see that in the majority of cases, this is a false dichotomy.
Whether we like it or not, we can’t have our cake and eat it too. We cannot encourage regional economic development while constantly opposing the economic projects that are put forward. Certainly, climate change being one of our society’s priorities, we must consider a number of environmental variables. However, taking environmental protection into account does not mean rejecting out of hand any project that involves developing natural resources, especially when it’s a matter of replacing coal with a cleaner energy source like natural gas.
It’s time to rethink how we evaluate large projects, both in Quebec and in the rest of Canada, in order to give a voice to the people who are truly affected by them. Otherwise, the only way for a project to proceed will probably be to nationalize it, as was done with the Trans Mountain pipeline. Is this not an entirely unreasonable state of affairs?
Miguel Ouellette is Director of Operations and Economist at the MEI. The views reflected in this opinion piece are his own.