Exploratory drilling in Cacouna (Quebec): a flaw within the Environmental Assessment process?

By Alice Couturier,

Recent developments in the Cacouna area, located on the South shore of the St. Lawrence River estuary, are an incentive to question the EA process for big energy projects in Quebec and in Canada. Preliminary drilling operations sparked a burning debate due to their potential impacts on a particular endangered species. These operations are part of a bigger project to build a pipeline to transport oil from the Alberta oil sands, along with a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal in Gros-Cacouna, which has been submitted to the National Energy Board (Arsenault, 2014).


Plans for the Energy East Pipeline and its ports (Source: Radio-Canada; extracted from CBC News, 11 September 2014):

On September 23rd, the Quebec Superior Court issued an injunction that forced the Albertan energy company- TransCanada Corporation- to immediately cease exploratory drilling in Cacouna until October 15th. The investigation concluded that the decision to deliver the certificate of authorization was based on insufficient information and may be unreasonable from a jurisprudence perspective (Superior Court of Quebec, 2014).

The four environmental groups that issued the demand were concerned by the threat posed by noise from drilling operations to the St Lawrence beluga whale species survival (CBC News, 2014). This relict population – geographically isolated from arctic beluga populations- figures among threatened species protected under the Species at Risk Act (Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 2013; Joint Review Panel & BAPE, 2006). Commercial whaling prior to 1979 greatly decreased the number of individuals, from about 10,000 before 1885 to below 1,000 today, with no sign of recovery (Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 2013). Risks associated with avoidance behaviours are increased because the area is important for the belugas’ reproduction, and because exploratory work was planned during the crucial breeding and nursing period (CBC News, 2014; Superior Court, 2014; Joint Review Panel & BAPE, 2006).

0829 jl Cacounca map

Map of the beluga whale habitat in the St Lawrence River estuary (Source: Robert Michaud, GREMM; Jeanine Lee, The Gazette):

That the certificate of authorization for exploratory drilling was issued in the first place is highly suspect! Especially if we consider that the 2006 public hearings report of a joint review panel between the federal and provincial Ministries of the Environment already established the importance of the area for belugas’ feeding and reproductive habits (Joint Panel Report: 78-79). The same report referred to scientific groups stating it was “unthinkable to authorize” operations from the month of June to October, which would scare the belugas away from the area (the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals, in Joint Review Panel: 27 & 85).

Surprising fact: this EIA report was among the documents analyzed prior to the delivery of the authorization certificate (Superior Court, 2014)! However, although the panel mentioned them, it did not include the GREMM’s advice within its official recommendations (Cacouna.Qc, 2006).

This case study hence highlights the potential existence of biases within the Canadian EIA process with regards to big energy projects. According to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (2007):

– the 2006 public hearing and joint review panel were designed to meet the requirements of both the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) and the Quebec Environment Quality Act;

– and, the panel report has been approved by the responsible authorities for the project under CEAA requirements, namely the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and Transport Canada (TC).

And yet a drilling permit for the Energy Cacouna project was granted despite significant risks to an endangered species. Then, how much information gets lost when projects are transferred from one governmental structure to another? Are there sufficient efforts to reconnect Environmental Assessments studies associated with different phases of a same project?

The media and the public seem to blame Quebec’s Minister of the Environment, David Heurtel, as he signed the permit for exploratory drilling in Cacouna. But is it really one individual’s fault? Or is it the whole EIA system/process that should be refined?



Arsenault, J. (2014). ‘TransCanada’s Cacouna Drilling Temporarily Halted For Belugas’, 23 Sept, The Huffington Post, Business, Canada, 7 Oct, [Online], Available: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/09/23/transcanada-cacouna-drilling_n_5871212.html [3 Oct 2014]

Cacouna.Qc (2006) Cacouna: beluga whales are not worth much according to BAPE report, [Online], 14 December, Available: http://cacouna.net/projetmethanier_e.htm [4 Oct 2014]

Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (2007) Archived – Government of Canada’s Response to the Report of the Joint Review Panel on the Proposed Development of the Cacouna Energy LNG Terminal Project, [Online], 10 July, Available: http://www.ceaa-acee.gc.ca/052/document-html-eng.cfm?did=22253 [5 Oct 2014].

CBC News (2014) TransCanada work on St. Lawrence port suspended by Quebec court order, [Online], 23 Sept, Available: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/transcanada-work-on-st-lawrence-port-suspended-by-quebec-court-order-1.2775613 [3 Oct 2014].

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (2013) Aquatic Species at Risk – Beluga Whale (St. Lawrence Estuary population), [Online], 22 July, Available: http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/species-especes/species-especes/belugaStLa-eng.htm [4 Oct 2014]

Joint Review Panel & BAPE (2006). Cacouna Energy LNG Terminal Project, [Electronic], Report 230, November, Available: http://www.ceaa-acee.gc.ca/050/documents/18338/18338E.pdf [5 Oct 2014].

TransCanada (2007) TransCanada and Petro-Canada receive approval from the Québec Government for the Cacouna Energy Project, [Online], 27 June, Available: http://www.transcanada.com/3106.html [3 Oct 2014].

Superior Court of Quebec (2014). Jugement (Injonction Interlocutoire), [Electronic], 23 September, Available: http://www.cqde.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Jugement_14_09_23.pdf [5 Oct 2014]

Vendeville, G. (2014) ‘Couillard says Cacouna drilling necessary’, The Montreal Gazette, [Online], 24 Sept, Available: http://www.montrealgazette.com/Couillard+says+Cacouna+drilling+necessary/10232763/story.html?__federated=1 [3 Oct 2014]

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