The future of shale gas exploration and its impact on the environment and human health have ignited a debate in Quebec, where the government says it's moving cautiously forward in allowing oil-and-gas companies to explore the region.
Environment Minister Pierre Arcand and Natural Resources Minister Nathalie Normandeau announced Sunday that the Quebec government would also launch an environmental study and public hearings into shale gas drilling.
Quebec sits on part of a massive natural gas field that extends from the St. Lawrence lowlands into New York State. Its exploitation could pump money into government coffers and create jobs as new technology — in which water, sand and chemicals are pumped down a well causing enough pressure to liberate the gas — makes the previously pricey energy source easier to extract.
"This is a formidable opportunity to exploit and consume a natural gas that is 100 per cent from Quebec," Normandeau told reporters, adding that a homegrown industry could create up to 10,000 new jobs and free up $2 billion the province is currently spending to import natural gas.
The province is also reviewing potential rules and regulations for the exploration of the shale gas, natural gas trapped in sedimentary rock formations, and plans to table a new bill this spring.
Normandeau also said there would be no large scale projects in Quebec before 2014.
But environmentalists and residents living near gas exploration sites want a stop to all current projects, citing environmental concerns.
About 40 noisy protesters repeatedly shouted down the ministers during Sunday's news conference.
Greenpeace Quebec director Eric Darier said there were concerns the gas could potentially leak into groundwater and drinking water during the extraction process.
He said development should be put on hold until the new legislation is in place.
"(The industry) will continue to do what they were doing yesterday and will continue into the coming months," he said in a telephone interview.
"In terms of public and political credibility I think the government should have told the industry there would be a moratorium in place until it's been settled."
He added Quebec should focus on developing renewable forms of energy like wind and solar power rather than embracing a non-traditional natural gas source.
"Why put so much effort into this industry instead of putting it into saving energy and renewable energy?" Darier asked.
"We're missing the ecological and economic boat here."
Exploratory drilling has already started in a number of Quebec municipalities.
Lucie Sauve, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Environmental Education and is the spokeswoman for a group of Quebecers opposed to shale gas exploration, says she's disappointed in Quebec's decision.
"This form of exploration is simply establishing an infrastructure for future exploitation — or at least a large part of the infrastructure," she said.
"It's also when a lot of environmental problems can crop up."
Shale gas — natural gas trapped in sedimentary rock formations — is being hailed as a greener alternative to oil and coal and is an increasingly important source of natural gas in North America.
Canada is the world's third largest natural gas producer and exporter and shale gas exploration is in the early stages in British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick.
United States energy policies may also give the Canadian natural gas market a boost. Last week, 20 nations met in Washington for two days of shale gas talks and the U.S. pledged to help China and India exploit their shale gas reserves.
But the growing interest has left governments like Quebec struggling with how to regulate this newly accessible energy source.
In June, the House of Commons supported a motion to initiate a comprehensive review of federal rules on unconventional oil-and-gas development.
Legislators in New York State approved a temporary moratorium in early August on a certain type of natural gas exploration called 'fracking' — a horizontal drilling technique in which water, sand and chemicals are pumped down a well, causing enough pressure to liberate the gas.
And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced last March it would take a close look at the environmental and human health impact of shale gas drilling.
For now, Quebecers are keeping a close eye on the nascent industry.
"Like everyone, farmers have been taken aback by the speed with which these projects are multiplying and important questions remain unanswered, especially with regards to the environment," Christian Lacasse, the head of a Quebec agricultural union, said in a statement Sunday.
"The more information we have, the easier it will be for us to make an informed choice."