Quebec continues to rail against shale gas

Questerre Energy Corp. and the enduring fight for public acceptance

March 01, 2011

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Michael Binnion
Questerre Energy Corp. CEO Michael Binnion
Photo Jason Molyneaux

Quebec Premier Jean Charest’s words had an ominous tone for companies involved in the province’s shale gas industry. “There will be shale gas exploration and extraction on the condition that it can be done correctly. If not, there won’t be any.”

The warning came after news of a gas leak at a shale gas test well in Leclercville, southwest of Quebec City, in January. The Quebec government had been keen on shale gas exploration up to this point. But Charest’s comments suggest its support is easily shaken.

The controversy over the Leclercville incident is the latest piece of bad public relations news for shale gas proponents such as Calgary-based Questerre Energy Corporation, which has over one million acres of land holdings in Quebec. In a province with no history of oil and gas activity, shale gas exploration there has been met with loud, and frequent, public opposition.

Much of that opposition centers on the industry’s use of fraccing technology – fracturing layers of shale with high pressure blasts of water and chemicals – to free up the natural gas. Critics say fraccing can result in contamination of groundwater.

The furor, and the province’s reaction, over the Leclercville incident proves once again to Questerre president and chief executive officer Michael Binnion how poorly shale gas and his industry are understood by the public. He also thinks the time has come for the oil and gas industry to change its tactics in overcoming that lack of understanding, and the public opposition to projects that often results from it.

Recently, Binnion has taken to blogging about shale gas as one small way of stemming the negative tide. But he knows it will take more than corporate use of social media tools to erase public doubts about the safety of shale gas exploration and extraction. “What we have here is not a public relations problem, but a political problem,” Binnion says.

He says the petroleum industry has to understand how political campaigns are won and lost. That requires companies who want to operate in a specific area to build a constituency that essentially will vote “yes” to oil and gas activity. “The oil industry has had the attitude that it will just move its capital if it doesn’t like what is happening somewhere,” Binnion says. “We’ve had this idea of asking communities to tell us why we should invest in their economies. Long term, that’s a bad strategy.”

And it’s not Questerre’s strategy. The company recently scored a coup on the credibility front when former Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard joined its board of directors. Binnion says he has also met with 80 mayors since Questerre started its foray into Quebec in 2007. The company also recently spent three months holding community meetings to inform the public about a seismic project in the St. Lawrence lowlands – part of a broader effort to win the hearts and minds of Quebec residents.

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