Energy, Economy, and Environment: What it means for Sophie Brochu, President and CEO of Gaz Métro

As President and Chief Executive Officer of Gaz Métro, Sophie Brochu is living her dream. For Brochu, energy is not merely a business; it is a passion, one she discovered while studying economics at Laval University. “I realized that energy affected everything, from the economies of producing and consuming regions, to the budgets of families to society at large.”

Sophie Brochu, President and CEO of Gaz Métro - Image courtesy of Gaz Métro.

Sophie Brochu, President and CEO of Gaz Métro – Image courtesy of Gaz Métro.

Over the course of her career, this holistic approach to energy policy has served Brochu well. She was perfectly positioned to navigate the growing interplay of energy, the economy, and the environment. “In the last two decades, we have moved from silos to intersections and we are on the tipping point of having just one big thing.”

Brochu recalls how that “one big thing” started to take shape in the 1990’s. “I remember when the price of natural gas rocketed from $2 a gigajoule to $13. I was heading the customer service department and people were calling in, crying, because they could not pay their bills. It became apparent that we needed to help our customers consume less energy; if we didn’t, we were going to hurt them, and ourselves.”

While conservation efforts were first driven by price, the environment soon became an important factor. “Gaz Métro was the first energy company in Quebec to put together an efficiency program, in 2000, and aggressively deploy it to our customers. This is where we connected with the environmentalists, because all of a sudden they saw us as somebody who cared about conservation.”

LNGUnder Brochu’s leadership, Gaz Métro continues to find ways to mitigate the negative effects of fossil fuel consumption, from smog to carbon emissions. Their latest projects use Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) in new applications and markets to reduce reliance on oil and diesel.

“When you burn fewer petroleum products, you reduce certain contaminants by up to 99 per cent at the local level,” says Brochu. Factor in a reduction of up to 25 per cent in greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s easy to see why natural gas presents an attractive alternative, particularly in liquid form.

“When natural gas is liquefied, it takes 600 times less space and can be moved to remote regions. LNG can then bring these benefits to transportation and to places where traditional distribution networks cannot reach. Since the price of gas has become incredibly competitive, we can add a transformation cost (for liquefaction) and still be more competitive than diesel or fuel oil.”

Gaz Métro’s progress on LNG projects has been swift. “In just 24 months, Gaz Métro now supplies 10 per cent of the fleet of Transport Robert (a major Quebec transportation company). We created the “Blue Road”, the first network of natural gas refuelling stations, running between Mississauga and Quebec City, and in the near future even further east than that in Rivière du Loup. We have a contract with Stornoway Diamond Mines 360 kilometers north of Chibougamau; instead of moving diesel from Montreal to their facility, we will be moving LNG.”

Maritime transport represents another important market. “The three new ferries of La Société des Traversiers du Québec have been ordered to be LNG propelled. One of these ferries has been delivered and is now in use making it the first ferry of its kind in North America. The Groupe Desgagnés has ordered two LNG designed ships. We have made a deal with Hydro Quebec to partly run their Bécancour plant on LNG during the winter. LNG is opening up a whole new market, and the North, particularly Northern Quebec, will benefit from that.”

For a decade, Brochu has also passionately called for a national conversation on energy, the environment, and the economy. “Canadians realize today that we need one another: people out West realize that they need the provinces to allow for energy projects to be built, to be able to reach the coast and export markets.” It seems as though provincial politicians are finally listening: on July 17, at the meeting of the Council of the Federation in Newfoundland, provincial premiers signed off on a Canadian Energy Strategy, five years in the making.

“We created the “Blue Road”, the first network of natural gas refuelling stations, running between Mississauga and Quebec City.”

“We created the “Blue Road”, the first network of natural gas refuelling stations, running between Mississauga and Quebec City.”

Brochu cites the new carbon market between Ontario, Quebec and California as another step in the right direction. “It was a bold move by Quebec to do that initially. Personally and corporately, we are in favour of the carbon market. A market is better than a tax: it’s more efficient. But in order to be efficient, you need a market, you need a large group to bargain with to make it efficient.”

But Brochu doesn’t shy away from criticizing initiatives that she believes require improvement. In 2014 Brochu made headlines when she spoke out against the potentially negative impact of TransCanada Pipeline’s Energy East project on natural gas producers in Ontario and Quebec.

“Before Energy East was announced, I expressed myself as formally in favour of such a pipeline. Alberta needs it, Canada needs it, Quebec needs it. Then when TransCanada presented the concept, they implied that existing capacity for natural gas between North Bay and Ottawa would be taken out. While, a contractual agreement has been reached between all parties involved, I initially argued that a portion of the project needed to be rearranged because it would go against the markets and consumers we serve.”

Sophie with the Mayor of Montreal during the flagship event “Soupe pour elle”, as part of a challenge for “L’Effect A” a project for women’s ambitions - Image courtesy of Gaz Métro.

Sophie with the Mayor of Montreal during the flagship event “Soupe pour elle”, as part of a challenge for “L’Effect A” a project for women’s ambitions – Image courtesy of Gaz Métro.

Brochu believes her stance at the time made news for another reason: because she is a woman. “There was a journalist who said “well, you know, she has very compelling arguments, she was very articulate. Would you say that of a man? It’s as if women were not supposed to be articulate.” Brochu says that the experience has made her more sensitive to the need for more women in business, both at the CEO level and on corporate boards. This has also led her to become involved with “l’Effet A”, a movement aimed to encourage women, no matter their personal circumstances, to establish and strive to achieve ambitious personal and professional goals. In this vein, Brochu initiated the “Soup for Her” project which in 2015 raised over $100,000 for her street organization to help homeless women in Montréal.

“Sophie is excited about the innovations particularly around biomethane or RNG.”

“Sophie is excited about the innovations particularly around biomethane or RNG.”

Brochu brings this type of out-of-the-box thinking to work as well. As she looks to the future of Gaz Métro and the energy industry, she is excited about the innovations particularly around biomethane or renewable natural gas, which she calls “the fuel of the future.” In 2014 Gaz Métro announced a partnership with the municipality of Saint Hyacinthe, to use power generated by biomethanization. “It is significant because by 2020, Quebec municipalities will no longer be allowed to bury domestic waste, but will have to transform it, either by compost or biomethane.”

“Biomethane produced from domestic waste is fully compatible with the natural gas that we distribute. It will never displace supply that we need from more traditional sources, but it definitely is very intelligent from a supply standpoint, from a customer standpoint, from a company standpoint. Instead of producing a gas that creates CO2 in a landfill, they displace it and use it.”

No surprise: Brochu is once again thinking about the intersection of energy, the environment and the economy. Whether today or tomorrow, this industry leader will always keep her eye on the big picture.