Former premier Lucien Bouchard steps down as head of shale-gas lobby

MONTREAL – Former Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard made a final plea on behalf of the controversial shale-gas industry as he stepped down Thursday as head of the province’s shale-gas lobby group.

Bouchard urged the Quebec government to ensure that municipalities can’t unilaterally block projects exploring for the resource.

He recalled that last month, for example, the City of Gaspe was able to pass a regulation prohibiting drilling on its territory, prompting Petrolia (TSX:ECP) to halt a project.

“Are we to accept that it is possible that each municipality, each village has a veto on the development of our resources?” Bouchard said in a telephone interview with The Canadian Press.

“The state has a role to play and we cannot let municipalities decide whether Quebec will be developed economically or not.”

The move on Thursday came as Talisman Energy Inc. (TSX:TLM) announced its withdrawal from the oil and gas association that Bouchard had headed since January 2011.

Bouchard was named president of the group after getting a mandate from Calgary-based Talisman.

While he wasn’t able to significantly influence public opinion in favour of the industry, Bouchard had few regrets as he departed.

“We are far from having created environmental problems in Quebec but we did create apprehension,” he acknowledged, saying that preparations for some exploration could have been done better.

“But when I hear about the scandal of shale gas — what scandal? The industry has behaved in an extremely responsible way.”

Bouchard said natural gas stands poised to be the most-used energy in the world for generations to come.

“Quebec cannot stay away from it,” he said, adding he looked forward to it being developed in a responsible, environmentally sound manner that provides a good deal for taxpayers.

The Quebec government halted the shale-gas industry in March 2011 following recommendations in an environmental-assessment report.

That prompted Talisman to cancel investments of $109 million in shale-gas investments in the province.

It said at the time there wouldn’t be any capital committed to exploring for gas in Quebec’s shale formations for the foreseeable future because of a ban on the kind of drilling required to extract gas from the rock. With its dwindling activity in the province, it has now left the lobby group.

Talisman praised Bouchard in a statement on Thursday, saying he had helped build a dialogue with Quebecers on the future of the industry. It also said it had no decided on its future plans in the province.

A search is on to replace Bouchard as head of the lobby group, which still has several other member companies.

The new Parti Quebecois government has just ordered public hearings on the exploration and exploitation of shale-gas reserves in the province.

The government will also table a bill to formalize a moratorium on shale-gas exploration in the St. Lawrence River valley in advance of legislation that will regulate the industry.