MONTREAL - Quebec's most energy-intensive companies will soon be forced to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through a cap-and-trade system.

Environment Minister Pierre Arcand announced that 75 companies which annually produce more than 25,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases will have the new regime imposed on them as of Jan. 1, 2013.

"We just want to reduce greenhouse gases in the most flexible and efficient way," said Arcand.

The program will affect mostly aluminum smelters, mines, cement factories and Hydro Quebec.

The companies that will initially be part will be urged to emit less than 25,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases each year.

If not, they will need to buy carbon offset credits from other companies or trade among themselves.

The government is setting the initial price for a tonne of carbon emissions at $10.

"Our objective is to reduce greenhouse gases. We are not there to hurt companies," said Arcand.

20% by 2020

Arcand's announcement comes days after the federal government officially pulled out of the Kyoto Accord. He said that regardless of what Canada does, the provincial government hopes that by 2020 the province's greenhouse gas emissions will drop by 20 percent compared to 1990.

Quebec is the first province to implement this measure, but Arcand said he expects British Columbia and Ontario to follow suit.

California is the only other jurisdiction in North America that has a carbon-trading program.

Quebec's program will expand in 2015 to other industries that transport and distribute fuel.

Mixed reaction

Environmental groups were understandably happy with the decision, but the announcement was not warmly received by all.

Accounting firm Ernst & Young said the rapid implementation of the system would not allow companies to adapt in time.

An industry lobby group, the Conseil patronal de l'environnement, said it also opposes the measure.

The CPEQ said that if Quebec is the only province to implement a carbon-trading system, industries would be face a competitive disadvantage to their counterparts across Canada or in the U.S.

With a file from The Canadian Press