10/23/2012 04:49 EDT | Updated 12/23/2012 05:12 EST

Bouchard says dialogue on shale gas is government policy despite comments

MONTREAL - Former Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard has brushed off comments the province's environment minister made to reporters expressing concerns about shale-gas exploration.

Bouchard, who now heads Quebec's oil and gas association, says he wasn't aware of Martine Ouellet's exact remarks and that he considered her speech to be the government's official position.

"I know what I heard," he said Tuesday.

"I liked the proposal yesterday (Monday) because what the minister offered was of ministerial quality — a call to reason, a call for dialogue, a promise of transparency, of openness and it was quite coherent with the position laid out by the head of the government, Mme. Marois."

Ouellet told the association's annual meeting on Monday the government is open to a dialogue with the shale-gas industry.

However, Ouellet told a news conference afterward she believes shale-gas exploration is still risky. She did not rule out prohibiting it if that is in the public interest.

Bouchard, who gave the event's closing speech on Tuesday, acknowledged at a news conference the industry had made mistakes and approached the mining of the resource in a sometimes cavalier manner.

But he insisted that many studies had indicated there is no threat of contamination from the mining and that it can be done safely.

Bouchard pointed out that shale gas is harvested in the rest of Canada and the United States and much of the natural gas Quebec buys comes from this operation.

Critics of the shale-gas industry fear the method of exploiting the resource will create serious environmental problems — including the contamination of drinking water and the heavy use of water resources.

The industry insists that extraction chemicals are only used in small doses and the chances of them seeping into the environment are very slim.

Analysts, meanwhile, have called shale gas a potential gold mine.

The industry has said the provincial government, which is saddled with public debt, would reap annual royalties of $1 billion from shale-gas development. Since exploration began in 2008, close to 30 wells have been opened in Quebec.

But opposition to the shale-gas sector has prompted tumultuous public hearings and large demonstrations. One protest last year saw thousands of demonstrators march through Montreal to call for a 20-year moratorium.

The response has been much different in Western Canada, where shale-gas industries have flourished in both Alberta and British Columbia over the past decade.