After five over-long years of litigation, Quebec’s Superior Court has ruled that the 157 citizens of a tiny town on the Gaspé Peninsula had the right to pass a bylaw designed to protect their drinking water from the risks of oil and gas exploration.
Montreal-based fracking company Gastem thought otherwise in August 2013, reports the CBC, when it launched a $1.5-million lawsuit against the municipality of Ristigouche-Sud-Est, six months after the village took it upon itself to prohibit drilling within two kilometres of residents’ wells.
Having obtained a provincial permit to drill in the territory surrounding Ristigouche-Sud-Est in 2011, the company “argued the town adopted its bylaw hastily, illegally targeting the company and making it impossible for Gastem to pursue activities on the site.”
The company’s efforts to cast itself as the wronged party eventually struck out, however, with Superior Court Justice Nicole Tremblay calling the lawsuit “abusive.”
As CBC previously reported, the damages sought by Gastem were more than five times Ristigouche’s annual budget.
In her 16-page judgement, Tremblay “ruled the company should have tried to have the bylaw annulled before seeking any compensation,” CBC notes. She also affirmed that “contrary to what Gastem argued in court,” the village councillors had not been bullied “by environmentalists or forceful residents.”
The ruling is powerful affirmation of the principle that drove Ristigouche-Sud-Est’s determination to protect itself. “The stake is this,” declared Mayor François Boulay. “Does a municipality have the right to adopt a bylaw towards the protection of the common good without fearing a lawsuit?”
The court has ordered Gastem—which actually sold its permit to Houston-based French multinational Petrolia a month before launching the suit—to “reimburse 50% of the legal fees Ristigouche-Sud-Est incurred, and an additional $10,000 to cover the fees for the public relations company the town hired,” the national broadcaster notes.
Village lawyer Jean-François Girard called that punitive measure a “significant element of the ruling” that “could make companies think twice before suing a municipality that stands in their way.”
Critically, however, it was because “there was no provincial law in place at the time defining the rules around water protection” that Tremblay found in favour of the village’s move to protect itself, CBC notes. That would not be the case today, after Quebec adopted a rule in 2014 that establishes 500 metres as the minimum distance required between a fracking operation and a domestic water source.
Ristigouche-Sud-Est has since “joined a consortium of 364 municipalities that’s demanding the province establish a two-kilometre residential buffer zone to protect homeowners from drilling,” CBC states. With no response yet from the provincial government, consortium members will be meeting March 24 in Drummondville to draw up a plan of action.
In the meantime, Boulay told CBC, “we raise our glass of water to all those who supported us.”