Quebec biz group CEO hopeful on eastern pipelines, but public must be on side

CALGARY – The head of a Quebec business group says he’s hopeful the public will support proposals to ship Alberta crude east, but he urged industry and government do a better job in easing safety concerns around those projects.

Michel LeBlanc, CEO of the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal, cited the recent debate over shale gas extraction in the province, saying energy firms and government officials fumbled in their efforts to address worries over the technology.

“The population was asking questions. Companies were not necessarily great in answering — I can tell you that,” LeBlanc told a business audience in Calgary.

“But the worst of all were the government officials and the government bureaucrats — they didn’t know how to answer to the population’s fears. They didn’t know what to say…and that’s what needs to improve.”

Speaking to reporters, LeBlanc said he hopes it will be different when it comes to two pipeline proposals to carry western crude to eastern markets through Quebec.

As pipeline supporters look to get the public on board with their plans they must appreciate that, until recently, Quebecers were unfamiliar with the oil and gas industry.

“It’s normal. You don’t spend your life thinking about these things until it happens. So there’s a responsibility for the industry, and clearly in the fracking issue, it was not handled properly,” he said.

“You have to have the government being able to explain the process, how they will make sure state of the art technologies are used and eventually, if something happens, what are the measures that will be taken.”

LeBlanc said proposals such as the reversal of Enbridge’s Line 9 pipeline and TransCanada’s Energy East project would provide a much needed boost to Quebec’s refining and petrochemical industries.

In order to win public support, there must also be “an understanding that Quebec will not just be a platform for exporting oil, that it will be a place where economic activities will happen.”

Steve Williams, CEO of Suncor Energy — the massive oilsands producer that has a refinery in Montreal — said the eastern pipelines would help protect jobs in the province and perhaps create new ones.

“Five or six refineries have shut down in the Montreal area because they haven’t been economic. So it is a tough environment for refineries that can only import international crudes to be able to make the economics of the refineries work,” he told reporters.

“So it certainly increases the profitability and makes it a much better place to operate. So it secures a long-term future for the Montreal refinery.”

Williams says there are a number of investments Suncor could make in Montreal — such as adding a coker to handle heavy oilsands crude — that could create more jobs.

“I like the fact that the opportunity is there to have that value added in Canada.”

LeBlanc and Williams were speaking at an Alberta Enterprise Group luncheon focused on strengthening the Alberta-Quebec business relationship.

In his speech, Williams said oilsands development is expected to add $14 billion to Quebec’s economy over the next 25 years and that the future for both provinces looks bright.

“But there’s a catch. To get that bright future, we have to get past today’s polarized and often . . . (fractious) debates,” he said.

“In the midst of trying to prove who’s right and who’s wrong, I’m very concerned that we may find ourselves in a worse position than where we started.”