Oil, Gas & Social Movements in Gaspésie
Gaspésie is a peninsula in eastern Quebec, where the St. Lawrence river meets the Atlantic Ocean. With its rolling mountains (the end of the Appalachians), its hundreds of kilometers of crystal-clear rivers, and its coastal beaches, the region is one of Quebec’s most beautiful.
It is here, where you can still drink water directly from most rivers, that oil and gas companies have painted a target.
In 2013, 47 people were killed when an oil train derailed and exploded in downtown Lac-Megantic. The oil that the train carried was from Alberta’s Tar Sands and the Bakken Shale Formation—mostly located in North Dakota, in the United States.
That wasn’t the end of oil trains in Quebec, though. As companies that extract from the landlocked Tar Sands and Bakken Shale Formation seek methods to export their product, they have dramatically increased oil traffic on railways.
“In 2013-2014, in 14 months, there were 20 crashes involving oil trains,” says Pascal Bergeron, a spokesperson for Environnement Vert Plus, an environmental organization in Gaspésie. “So we’re really worried about them bringing those trains in our area.”
This process continues to occur, and has crystallized in the project to build an export terminal in Belledune, New Brunswick. This terminal, operated by Chaleur Terminals Inc., will have a storage capacity of 1.2 million barrels in its first stage and 3 million barrels in its second stage. This would mean an increase of 220 and 600 oil wagons per day, per stage—wagons that would pass through railways in Gaspésie and Quebec.
This would mean a dramatically increased risk of long-term environmental damage in the case of a derailment. Even in a best-case scenario, a smoothly functioning oil terminal means increased export capacity for the Tar Sands and the Bakken shale—leading companies to dig up more oil and accelerate climate change.
Gaspésie’s three Mi’kmaq communities have launched a lawsuit against the company to prevent the terminal’s construction, saying that the company and government failed in their legal duty to consult the indigenous nation. Bergeron says that this lawsuit is the best chance to shut down the project.
The past few years have seen an uptick in exploration for oil and gas reserves in Gaspésie. The rights to the oil and gas in Gaspésie are currently owned by a handful of companies, including Petrolia, Gastem, and Junex. Over 80 per cent of Gaspésie is claimed by oil companies using the Quebec Mining Act, Bergeron says.
Petrolia is currently extracting oil from a well called Haldimand 4, located 350 meters from a residential section of Gaspé—the largest city in the peninsula.
“The first Haldimand rig was drilled around 10 years ago,” Bergeron explains—referring to Haldimand 1, an exploration site farther away from Gaspé. “They started with injection tests, to see how the rock in the ground reacts to fracking fluids.”
“This summer, we learned that [water] wells near Haldimand 1 have started experiencing contamination,” he says.
Bergeron says the Haldimand 4 has set up a horizontal well which “instead of putting big pressure to frack, they are putting high-concentration acid to dissolve the rock and release the oil.”
“It’s not fracking, but the results are the same. You destroy the underground to extract the oil,” he says.
Haldimand 4 has been given a license to pump oil for 240 days. Within the first days of extraction, they had pumped out 530 barrels of oil—without paying a cent in royalties to the provincial government. No public consultation or environmental review has occurred, despite locals’ demands.
Other exploration sites are also being set up, including Bourque, which is more inland and away from Gaspésie’s coastal towns. Petrolia, which also runs the Bourque project, announced recently that it would commence work on the site, including 1750 meters of horizontal drilling—the process which often leads to fracking. Water contamination at the Bourque site would affect many of Gaspésie’s downstream communities, Bergeron says.
These projects are destructive, and need to be stopped. And while that may seem like an impossible task due to the enemy being multi-million dollar corporations, these projects are not set in stone. They depend on multiple factors, and by targeting those chokepoints, they can be shut down.
One of those chokepoints is public financing, much of which comes from Investissement Quebec. This government agency has a billion-dollar investment fund for oil and mining projects, $200 million of which is earmarked for oil projects, Bergeron says. The companies active in Gaspésie draw on this public funding regularly, and would not be able to complete their operations without it.
Bergeron suggests that individuals should buy small amounts of stock in Quebec’s oil companies, in order to be given access to investor reports. The information provided in these reports—much of which is unavailable to the public—could be used against the companies, and used to pressure institutional investors away from oil exploration in Gaspésie. Users of this tactic would need to be able to analyze economic data, and find weak points to exploit in their reports.
The companies have also been dependent, up to now, on the total lack of public consultation for their projects. Quebec has a fairly transparent public consultation system for environmental issues, called the Bureaux des audiences public sur l’environnement. Subjecting these extraction projects to a BAPE would, at the very least, provide a level of visibility to these projects—something previously unheard of.
Community organizing is also an important aspect of any strategy. Towns near the extraction projects in Gaspésie are mobilizing around these issues, and will need to continue to do so. Activists in Montreal and other urban centers will need to show support for communities on the front lines of these projects. Vocal opposition brings down the veil of social acceptability that companies are hiding behind.
It’s time to do the hard work of movement-building. The machinery of environmental destruction won’t be stopped by the stroke of a politician’s pen. It will take people on the ground, like you and me, standing together and refusing.
Once we’ve stopped these future-wrecking projects, who knows what we’ll be able to build together.