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Quebec Is At the Forefront of Canada’s Petro-Economy Expansion

With pipelines stalled in BC and the US, Quebec is the last frontier—for now—in the fight to stop tar sands oil from being exported around the world.
December 11, 2014, 5:27pm

Protesters hold a sign calling Stephen Harper a climate criminal. Photo by Simon Van Vliet.

Last Saturday morning, a group of local activists set up camp to protest the drilling of an oil well near Gaspé in eastern Quebec. This is the latest development in a four-year battle against Quebec-based Pétrolia's Haldimand 4 project, one of the most advanced oil extraction projects in Quebec, which to this day has been subject to neither public consultation nor any independent environmental assessment.

On Saturday, Pétrolia—which owns interests in oil and gas licenses covering 16,000 square kilometers and represents about a quarter of all fossil fuel claims made in Quebec—obtained an injunction to force activists to lift the blockade at its Gaspé site. The site of the blockade contains an estimated 7.7 million barrels of oil with a commercial potential of several hundred million dollars, according to preliminary assessments.

Pétrolia's recent decision to use the court system to quell opposition echos Kinder Morgan's recent injunction against protesters blocking its Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project in British Columbia. VICE reached out to Pétrolia for a comment on the injunction but they declined.

But this is not the first time Pétrolia has used the courts to push the Haldimand 4 project forward: last year the company successfully sued the city of Gaspé over a municipal water protection bylaw, which effectively outlawed the project by imposing a minimal safety distance between a drilling site and freshwater sources.

Pétrolia's case inspired Quebec-based oil and gas exploration company Gastem to file a $1.5-million lawsuit against the town Ristigouche-Partie-Sud-Est, a village of 168 inhabitants with an annual budget under $300,000. After dodging the issue for months, Quebec's Minister of Municipal Affairs announced a few weeks ago that the province would not help Ristigouche pay its legal fees, leaving it with no other choice than to crowd-fund its defence in what has all the characteristics of a strategic lawsuit against public participation (SLAPP).

The pushback against Pétrolia in Gaspé is just one small battle in the growing fight against fossil fuel exploration and extraction projects in Quebec, and against the expansion of the Canadian tar sands.

"Each and every day, worrying scientific reports warn us against the impending ecological disaster of global warming, due largely to the current petro-economy," reads a statement from the highly successful crowd-funded initiative "Let's double down". Launched by notorious student activist Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois in support of the grassroots civil society coalition Coule pas chez nous, the project seeks to educate Quebeckers about the transit of tar sands oil through the province.

Nadeau-Dubois's statement also points out that "Ottawa will not listen to scientists, preferring to muzzle them rather than give the desire for easy payoffs a reality check. Petro-federalism lives in denial and deliberately ignores the consequences of its actions: irresponsibility is its governing principle."

It's not like evidence of the consequences is lacking. A recent Pembina Institute study assessing the climate impact of TransCanada's proposed Energy East project—another Quebec-based oil transportation project—concluded that the $12-billion, 4,600-kilometre pipeline "would have major environmental ramifications." This project alone "would generate an additional 30 to 32 million tonnes of carbon emissions each year—the equivalent of adding more than seven million cars to Canada's roads," the report found.

Despite intensive lobbying in favour of TransCanada's pipeline, recent polls confirm that there is large-scale opposition to the project in Quebec, with less than 30 percent of Quebecers in supporting it. In fact, actions organized throughout last year—including a 34-day march, a three-week action camp, and several more demonstrations and direct actions—have helped "build a network of resistance against TransCanada's Energy East and Enbridge's Line 9," according to Quebec activist Alyssa Symons-Bélanger.

Currently, both the inversion of Enbridge's existing 639-kilometre section of Line 9B and TransCanada's Energy East pipeline are facing serious challenges. In mid-October, the National Energy Board delayed Enbridge's inversion project over major water safety concerns. A few weeks earlier, four environmental groups had forced the suspension of work on TransCanada's project, prompting Quebec's Environment Minister David Heurtel to announce that Energy East would not be approved unless a series of conditions were satisfied.

The importance of Quebec within the larger picture of Canada's energy plan shouldn't be underestimated. If Quebec can stop the current slate of projected pipelines—just as BC and the US have with Northern Gateway and Keystone XL, respectively—the tar sands will remain landlocked and isolated from exportation markets. This puts the province at the forefront of the fight against the expansion of the Canadian petro-economy.

The importance of this struggle was underlined last weekend at international negotiations over the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Lima, Peru. As the fifth-largest oil producer in the world in 2013, Canada is increasingly isolated as a backbencher in climate action. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon went out of his way to specifically ask Canada to take a "leadership role" in the fight against climate change and called for the country to move away from its current reliance on fossil fuels, stressing that it's possible "to make a transformative change from a fossil fuel-based economy to a climate-resilient economy."

"This is not a time for tinkering—it is a time for transformation," Ki-moon said. Indeed, the UN Environment Program's Adaptation Gap Report, released last Friday, stated: "In a business-as-usual scenario, global greenhouse gas emissions could rise [...] far beyond the safe limits, and bring an increased need for spending to adapt to the consequences of a rapidly warming world."

As he urged governments around the world to make the connection "between addressing manmade climate change and building more resilient, prosperous, and healthier societies," the UN Secretary General explained that "investments made in development must be aligned with our climate aims," which experts say should reach zero emissions globally by the end of the century at the latest.

Back in Gaspé, anti-oil activists like Maude Prud'homme (spokesperson for grassroots movement Tache d'Huile)—and countless others across Quebec—share the UN's vision of a diversified future and are trying to take local action to achieve it. "All the energy we're putting into fighting these things," Prud'homme said, "we're not putting it into trying to figure out how to get rid of our dependence to oil."

With the federal and provincial governments failing to step up to their climate responsibilities when it comes to regulating the fossil fuels industry, it will take a unified effort to take on the fight for climate justice.

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