OPINION: Why Quebec is losing Billions

Québec holds one of the best natural gas reservoirs in the world. Yet it pays two billion $ every year to import it all from Western Canada and the United States.

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Surely this would be one of the easiest decisions to make for an economy bound government, even more so in the COVID era where heavy deficits will accumulate for years.

After promising to make Québec a wealthy province once and for all by producing its own resources, Premier François Legault backed out as soon as green NGOs criticized him for not paying enough attention to the environment – even if the topic was never at the heart of his winning campaign in 2018 and when the Quebec population repeatedly says poll after poll that it should produce its own energy.

And so we have come to this : for a government with a focus on economy, losing 4 billion $ in the next 15 years is preferable to exposing yourself to a 48 hours negative media cycle.

Why are we there ? There are three reasons in my view.

It is no secret that Quebeckers see themselves as unique and different. In its political expression, this difference has been touted as a distinct society within Canada.

Socially, Quebec has always wanted to be seen as a progressive state, more generous, more equal, and certainly more green. This of course has nothing to do with reality. Though they were hundreds of thousands to walk alongside Greta Thurnberg, Quebeckers are buying more and more SUVs and are among the worst recyclers in the country.

The second reason is Quebec has no hydrocarbon culture. Try to see yourself selling electrical lines in people’s backyards in Calgary, and you get the picture. They will most certainly oppose and tell you this thing will give them brain cancer.

NGOs start with an advantage here when they criticize the industry. And I personally know many government people and business leaders who always refer to Energir for all matters related to gas production technologies, even though it is only a distributor. It is then almost impossible to reach social acceptability without spending years on pedagogy and public debate.

The third reason is the awful media coverage of the energy sector. On this matter, I would say there are two kinds of journalists in Quebec : those who don’t know a thing, and those who hate it. None of them has ever read the IPCC reports, but they are not about to let go the best story ever – the end of the world.

They will most certainly not going to let the facts interfere with such a great story. It is simply impossible for them to write that gas is a key to emissions cut, or that alarmism leads to bad policies, as the recent failure to reach the Paris agreement targets shows.

And so by moving from opposition to government, Premier Legault’s party has been reminded that a respectable government can’t possibly allow local natural gas production. But that could change very soon. Legault dreamed about being the prime minister of the economy. He will be the prime minister of the pandemics. Gone are the days where he generously spent the inherited surpluses from the former government.

It is estimated that Quebec’s deficit will range between 10B$ to 15B$ in the next budget, and no one knows for how long the government will be posting red figures. The same goes for local towns, where the barbershop and the local grocery store are struggling to remain open. Or with farmers, that are paying too much for imported gas, or are totally dependent on propane from Canada.

To the economic benefits, we must now add energy security as a no brainer. As for the environment, a study shows producing local natural gas with zero emissions technology would mean 300% fewer emissions than importing all of it.

So are things about to change? Luckily, the government is not the only one now who could decide. It is dreadful to see politicians refusing to take leadership on natural resources, but people who need local natural gas in Quebec – big industry, manufacturers, farmers, towns and First Nations – could soon remind him that millions and billions of dollars are probably worth some bad press for a couple of days.       

Éric Tetrault is the CEO of the Association de l’Énergie du Québec- Reversing climate change with innovation and technology.                            

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