Liberals want moratorium on gas exploration in New Brunswick

6/30/2011

The Liberals are calling for a moratorium on shale gas exploration across the province, a move the government says is unnecessary.

Interim Liberal leader Victor Boudreau said Wednesday until stricter regulations and oversight are in place, shale gas projects should be put on hold.

"Obviously, government is hungry to get these royalty revenues and I can appreciate that because we are coming out of the worst financial crisis we've seen in 70 years," Boudreau said. "But that being said, we can't do it at the expense of our drinking water."

Boudreau was referring to fears that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, could pollute the environment, including well water. To extract the gas, a mix of chemicals and water is used to blast apart rock and release the lucrative product. The worry is that the effluent from the process will harm drinking water sources.

It's a debate that has divided New Brunswickers. On one side are people who want to protect the environment and on the other are those who believe shale gas development will create jobs and bring more money to the traditionally have-not province.

Natural Resources Minister Bruce Northrup has talked to both sides in his rural riding of Kings East.

"There is opposition, for sure, but there's also the other side that want to see the economic benefit for the province," he said Wednesday. "So we're trying to get the right information to people out there."

As part of that process, the government set up a steering committee on the industry earlier this year made up of senior government officials. Northrup said that unlike in Quebec, which recently imposed a moratorium, New Brunswick has been ahead of the curve imposing regulations.

Last week, the province issued new rules that compel industry to test well water along exploration lines and near well sites to establish baseline measurements, a precaution to ensure fracking doesn't contaminate drinking water. Industry must also reveal what kind of chemicals are being used in fracking fluid and have a security bond to pay landowners in the event of an accident.

The Liberals made the call for a moratorium after meeting privately with industry, the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, academics and New Brunswickers. They also sent MLA and Environmental critic Denis Landry to the government's private stakeholders' meeting on the issue last week in Fredericton.

While the Tories have spoken to same groups, Boudreau said there was a big difference in the parties' approaches.

"They've basically let industry lead the charge here," Boudreau said, calling for regulations on well casing standards, disposal and storage of wastewater and site rehabilitation.

"I do believe there is potential there, that's why we're not calling for a ban. We're saying we need to slow down here and make sure we are doing things right."

Northrup countered that it was the former Liberal government that signed the original contract lease with Southwest Energy to develop shale gas with little regulation or government staff in place to handle the file.

"We've said since Day 1, we are not putting a moratorium on; we're taking our time with this," Northrup said.

He also pleaded for common sense on the heated issue.

"This is a slow process. There may be one or two exploratory wells drilled this year and there may be one or two exploratory wells drilled next year. So the full impact of this is years down the road."

(Daily Gleaner)