MONTREAL – Within 24 hours of taking office, the new Parti Quebecois government slammed the door on two controversial industries and dropped a hint about shutting down a third.
The government moved to shore up its environmental credibility by promising to shut down an aging nuclear plant that is the only one in Quebec; reiterating plans to scrap a loan that would revive the province’s last asbestos mine; and suggesting that the shale gas industry might never be allowed to operate.
At the same time Premier Pauline Marois sought to mollify critics who feared her government might hurt the economy.
Some punditry since she took office has suggested her new cabinet is too heavy with social activists and not business-friendly enough. Marois opened her first news conference as premier with a promise of fiscal sobriety. She said she intends to erase the provincial deficit by 2013-14.
“I would like to underline that for my government, budgetary rigour is non-negotiable,” Marois said in Quebec City.
“I would like to remind you that in 2001 I was the first finance minister to pay down part of the debt, therefore I intend to pursue this same goal.”
In addition to the promises on asbestos and nuclear power, and hints about shale gas, Marois also announced plans to move ahead with the PQ campaign pledge to redraw Quebec’s northern-development plan. The party has promised, among other changes, to increase royalties paid by mining companies.
Such moves could provide more fodder for pundits expressing alarm about the makeup of her cabinet.
The group of ministers includes two people who spearheaded the Quebec Green party and a natural-resources minister — the government’s point person for mining and energy development — who’s been an active environmentalist for more than a decade.
Natural Resources Minister Martine Ouellet raised eyebrows Thursday by hinting about a long-term ban on the province’s fledgling, and contentious, shale-gas industry.
Ouellet said she didn’t believe the method of extracting natural gas from shale, known as “fracking,” can ever be done safely.
“I don’t foresee a day when there will be technology that will allow safe exploitation (of shale gas),” Ouellet said before her first-ever cabinet meeting.
Marois tried to downplay Ouellet’s comments after the inaugural meeting of her cabinet. She said any future decisions would be based on environmental studies that have yet to begin.
Under political pressure, the former Liberal government halted shale-gas exploration last year to conduct more studies on the ecological risks.
That environmental-review process was expected to take a couple of years. Now Ouellet is reiterating her party’s campaign promise to hold broad environmental public hearings on the risks of the sector, on top of the ongoing review.
Until then, she wants the industry to remain idle.
“Our position is very clear: we want a complete moratorium, not only on exploitation but also on exploration of shale gas,” Ouellet said. “We haven’t changed our minds.”
Those remarks earned her a rebuke from the last leader of her own party.
Andre Boisclair, a former PQ leader and environment minister who is now a consultant for Calgary energy company Questerre (TSX:QEC), said Ouellet appears uninformed about an industry that he insists has proven elsewhere in Canada that it can operate safely.
“Does it mean that Albertans aren’t doing it in a safe way and that the technology that they use isn’t ready yet?” Boisclair told The Canadian Press on Thursday.
“When they hear Martine Ouellet’s comments, you know, they’ll jump to the ceiling.”
Questerre has large investments in Quebec and hopes to eventually exploit gas deposits here.
Boisclair, who led the PQ from 2005 to 2007, said that 30 per cent of the natural gas now used in Quebec comes from unconventional sources, such as shale, outside the province.
“I think that the minister will regret (her statement) and that she’ll have no choice but to re-examine her beliefs on this question,” he said.
When asked whether he thought Marois’ cabinet was as friendly to business as past PQ cabinets, Boisclair replied: “Well, we’ll see.”
Critics of the shale-gas industry fear that the method of exploiting the resource will create serious environmental problems — including the contamination of drinking water and the heavy use of water resources.
The industry insists that extraction chemicals are only used in small doses and the chances of them seeping into the environment are very slim.
Analysts, meanwhile, have called shale gas a potential economic game-changer.
The industry has boasted that the provincial government, which is saddled with public debt, would reap annual royalties of $1 billion from shale gas development. Since exploration began in 2008, close to 30 wells have been opened in Quebec.
But opposition to the shale-gas sector has been passionate in this province, prompting tumultuous public hearings and large demonstrations. One protest last year saw thousands of demonstrators march through Montreal to call for a 20-year moratorium.
The response has been much different in Western Canada, where shale-gas industries have flourished in both Alberta and British Columbia over the past decade.
There are regional differences, however.
Existing shale-gas plays in Western Canada sit in sparsely populated areas, and in many places, residents there have grown accustomed to the industry’s presence.
Many of the plays in Quebec are located around the St. Lawrence River, an area which is not only more densely populated, but also takes up part of the province’s agricultural heartland.
Marois also announced Thursday that she will shut down the aging Gentilly-2 nuclear reactor in Becancour and create a $200 million fund to diversify the region’s economy.
She also promised to push ahead with her plans to scrap a $58-million loan to Jeffrey Mine, which would revive the last asbestos mine in the country.
Her decision to cancel the loan could signal the death knell of an industry that once helped build entire towns in different parts of Canada.
The federal government, blaming the PQ, has already said it will stop trying to defend asbestos on the international stage from the many critics who link the product to cancer.
While announcing the policy change, the Harper Tories accused the PQ of harming the economy of the asbestos-producing region.
In fact, the economic message appears to be part of a broader campaign by the Harper government.
In response to habitual attacks from the PQ, which hopes to take Quebec out of Canada, the Tories have sought to divert the conversation to what some perceive as the new provincial government’s Achilles’ heel.
That theme was laid out in an email from the Prime Minister’s Office, accidentally sent to reporters on Parliament Hill on Thursday.
The note from the PMO contained so-called “talking points” for Tories when asked to comment on the new Quebec government.
“We do not believe that Quebecers wish to revisit the old constitutional battles of the past,” said the email. “Our government will remain focused on jobs, economic growth and sound management of the economy.”
-With a file from Patrice Bergeron in Quebec City