Four Quebec Politicians Disagree on Energy Policy at Concordia Debate

Liberal Party transport critic David Heurtel and Parti Québécois MNA Daniel Breton participate in a debate at Concordia about Quebec’s energy policy on March 3. Photo Michael Wrobel

The night before a provincial election was called, a Concordia debate between four politicians about Quebec’s energy policies revealed deep divides in what types of policies they consider realistic.

While Québec solidaire MNA Amir Khadir and Green Party of Quebec leader Alex Tyrrell argued in favour of energy conservation and improvements to public transit systems, Parti Québécois MNA Daniel Breton and Liberal Party transport critic David Heurtel told the roughly 50 students gathered in the D.B. Clarke Theatre on Tuesday that the provincial government had to be pragmatic.

“We need, once again, to find a realistic formula and when we’re talking about investing, investing, investing, it’s all great, but with what money? The fact is, we’re $2.5 billion in deficit,” Heurtel said.

Breton, the parliamentary assistant to the premier for transport electrification, defended the PQ’s support for Enbridge Inc.’s Line 9 pipeline, which would bring oil from Alberta to Montreal. He also discussed its decision to invest $115 million in two projects evaluating the possibility of extracting oil on Anticosti Island, located at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, by digging eight exploratory wells.

“If we don’t take [our oil] from Anticosti or the west, we’re still taking it from somewhere, and the reality is that […] there are no scientists, no engineers, no economists, no geologists who have given us the solution to get us out of oil before 25, 30 years [from now],” he continued.

Breton said he has “serious unease” about the Line 9 pipeline, but that it’s ultimately “a project in federal jurisdiction.”

Tyrrell and Khadir criticized Breton for having given up on his convictions when he joined the PQ. Breton helped re-launch the Green Party of Quebec ahead of the 2003 general elections.

“I’m truly surprised to hear my friend and colleague Daniel Breton engaging today in a discourse that is so fundamentally the opposite of what he said before he became an elected official,” said Khadir.

“Amir, you know perfectly well that’s false,” replied Breton. “I’d just like to point out that it was our government that, in 18 months, closed the Gentilly-2 nuclear power station. […] We launched a plan for the electrification of transport, which is the most ambitious plan in the Americas.”

Khadir said the PQ’s discourse on oil exploration makes it difficult to distinguish their views from those of the Liberal Party, “who consider themselves the promoters of the fossil fuel sector’s development.”

Pressed for an answer by Khadir and Tyrrell, Heurtel said the Liberal Party is in favour of a regulated shale gas industry and would allow fossil fuel extraction “if it’s safe and respects the environment.”

“We need a law on hydrocarbons that completely frames that extraction,” he said.

Khadir said fossil fuel development on Anticosti Island would produce as much greenhouse-gas emissions “as the 3 million inhabitants of the Greater Montreal area.”

A More Electric Quebec?

The debate also included a discussion on the role of hydroelectricity in Quebec’s energy policy. Breton touted the PQ government’s three-year, $516-million plan to move towards electricity-powered transport.

“It’s a plan that was greeted positively by ecologists, by businesspeople, by transit agencies,” Breton said. “We want to make, of transport electrification, the same type of industry that we have with aeronautics or multimedia in Quebec.”

Breton said that the electrification of transport is “not the panacea for the next five years,” but that it was “undoubtedly part of the future—2020, 2030, 2040, 2050.”

Québec solidaire MNA Amir Khadir and Quebec Green Party leader Alex Tyrrell debate energy policy at Concordia. Photo Michael Wrobel
Heurtel touted his own party’s steps to increase the amount of clean energy in the province, noting that construction began in 2009 on Hydro-Quebec’s Romaine hydroelectric complex under the Liberal government. The project, which consists of four generating stations in the Côte-Nord region, is expected to be complete by 2020.

“We don’t need Romaine, a large construction site of mega-dams,” countered Khadir, emphasizing instead the need to reduce energy consumption.

Khadir added that jobs can be created in small- and medium-sized companies operating in the construction industry by renovating buildings to make them more energy efficient.

“But the Liberal Party chose to give contracts [for the hydroelectric dams] to friendly firms—the SNC-Lavalins of the world, the companies of Tony Accurso, the companies of the Fava family, contributors to the Liberal Party’s campaign coffers,” he said.

In an interview with The Link, Tyrrell said the Green Party is opposed to fracking, a controversial process for extracting fossil fuels.

“We’re not necessarily opposed to any oil drilling under any circumstances, but we’re definitely opposed to a lot of the oil exploration that’s taking place in Quebec, and we’re the only party that has a concrete plan to reduce the number of cars on the road and drastically reduce our energy consumption across all sources,” he said.

CAQ Absent from Debate

Missing from the debate was a representative of the Coalition Avenir Québec. The debate’s organizers said the CAQ’s MNAs were meeting in Quebec City and none of them could be in Montreal on Tuesday night.

In an interview with The Link, MNA François Bonnardel, the CAQ’s critic for natural resources, said his party would evaluate public transit projects on a “case-by-case” basis.

He also said the CAQ was the first party to suggest a plan for fossil fuel development on Anticosti Island.

“We applauded the position of the Parti Québécois to acquire a stake [in the project] and take back half of the [rights over these natural resources] to one day possibly extract the oil on Anticosti,” he said.

He said the CAQ is in favour of a moratorium on shale gas extraction in the Saint-Lawrence valley, but wants a pilot project to be launched to continue scientific research over a 24-month period.

“For us, it would be unfortunate to throw in the garbage the work that’s already been started, which was bulldozed somewhat in 2009-2010. The Liberals did the work poorly to sell Quebecers on this, so I think we have to start from square one.”