Quebec's environmental review agency will begin examining next month a controversial natural gas project that is already facing opposition from Indigenous communities, but which also has the government's blessing.
Environment Minister Benoit Charrette sent a letter last week to the head of the agency, known by its French acronym as the BAPE, in which he indicates the review process will begin March 16, according to Radio-Canada.
The natural gas project is composed of both a pipeline component and a plan to construct a $9.5-billion liquefaction plant by the Saguenay port, roughly 230 kilometres northeast of Quebec City.
It is the proposed plant, backed by GNL Québec, that will be reviewed first. The pipeline, which would stretch 780 kilometres from Ontario to Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean and cost an estimated $4.5 billion, will be studied by the BAPE separately.
Charrette's letter said the environmental review was necessary because the liquefied natural gas (LNG) project raises a number of potential issues, including greenhouse gas emissions, damage to wetlands and water environments and risk of accidents.
Premier François Legault has repeatedly indicated he is favourable to the project, claiming among other things that it will help reduce emissions globally by facilitating exports of LNG, which emits fewer emissions than coal.
That claim has been contested by large numbers of academics, including economists and scientists, who estimate that when extracting and consuming the natural gas is considered, the project could be responsible for 1.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions over 25 years.
That's equivalent to the amount of emissions that 382 million cars produce in a year.
The project has also stirred opposition from members of Innu communities, whose ancestral territory would be crossed by the pipeline if it's built.
Several dozen Innu members attended protest marches this weekend in Mashteuiatsh, on the eastern shores of Lac-Saint-Jean, and in L'Anse-Saint-Jean, about 100 kilometres southeast of Saguenay.
At the demonstrations, where they were joined by local environmental groups, Innu expressed both opposition to the LNG project in Quebec and support for the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs opposing a pipeline project in British Columbia.
"I have lots of grandchildren and I have two great-grandchildren. I want them to be able to live on a healthy planet," said Huguette Volant, one of the Innu protesters.
The company behind the liquefaction plant, GNL Québec, welcomed the news about the upcoming environmental review, which will include a series of public hearings.
"It's a big step for our project," said spokesperson Stéphanie Fortin. "For us it's a chance where we'll be able to show all the benefits of the project."
The public hearings will be broken into two phases over four months. In the first phase, GNL Québec will outline its project and answer questions from the public. In the second, the public is invited to table documents about the project.
At the end of the process, the BAPE will produce a report for the Environment Ministry which may contain recommendations, but the Quebec government gets the final say on whether the project can go ahead.