Public consultation: Talk to the hand!

The schedule for the global strategic environmental assessment (SEA) on hydrocarbons (fossil fuels) tells us that it was on October 28th, that the population gained access to the documents that will inform the whole string of policies related to the exploration, drilling, and transportation (by pipeline, train or boat) of fossil fuels (oil and gas) across the entirety of the province’s territory. Now the public has access to 36 studies to form an opinion on the subject. And please note that this portion of the SEA excludes drilling on Anticosti.

We can certainly rejoice that Couillard’s government is being so transparent, making information publicly available and setting up public hearings on the topic. However, we know the drill and it looks more like a strategy to legitimize the government’s support to the oil and gas industry than an actual consultation.

Democratic deficit

It will be possible to present your concerns in public hearings between November 16 and 19 in seven places throughout the territory. In short, you have 17 days (of which only 12 are business days) to read 64 studies and produce a brief. Oh yes, and I almost forgot, you need to book your 10-minute timeslot at least 4 days in advance.

Let’s assume that each of these studies is 175 pages long and that you read for 7 hours a day: you’ll need to read, per hour, 53 pages of taxing reading material only to be up-to-date during the hearings. It’s nearly impossible for the vast majority of Quebec citizens since they work from 9 to 5. If you wanna top that by submitting a brief, well good luck!

In this context, we can expect that the consultation process will only allow individuals to talk about local issues without addressing the big picture concerning the oil and gas industry’s legitimacy and/or development strategy on Quebec land. Hence, no brief will be truly able to question the government’s approach, which will take great pride in having consulted the population when tabling the final report before the end of the year.

Let’s talk about legitimacy…

Bearing in mind that the very government that commissioned the studies has clearly indicated that it “favours the development of the hydrocarbon option”, it’s quite clear that the studies commissioned by said government will focus on how to develop the option rather than questioning its necessity on Quebec land. (It’s worth noting that the government has since completely changed the webpage from an exposé of its action plan and vision to a presentation of the consultations, removing the clear statement of support for fossil fuel extraction.)

This vast SEA will have lasted little more than a year while the SEA dedicated only to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence will have required three full years of work. It begs the question: were researchers awarded enough time to produce adequate and valid work?

Finally, this SEA is presided by two deputy ministers (p. 2) who were not elected. Thence, its conclusions will remain informal (p. 13), and the government will be under no obligation to take them into account. We wonder, will all this actually be useful?

In conclusion, this environmental assessment, with an extremely wide mandate, does not make it possible for citizens to express their opinions with full knowledge of the evidence. It’s oriented in favour of fossil fuel extraction from the get go. Should the SEA’s conclusions go against the Couillard government’s wishes, it will be allowed to shamelessly let them gather dust.

All in all, to be a truly democratic society, one must not only be allowed to speak out, but also have the certainty of being heard, which clearly is not the case in this instance.

Bertrand Schepper is a researcher with IRIS, a Montreal-based progressive think tank. 

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