FREDERICTON – The Liberal victory in New Brunswick will provide a needed break in the development of the shale gas industry, say opponents of hydraulic fracturing who vowed to hold the party to its promise to impose a moratorium on the disputed practice.
Lois Corbett of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick said Liberal Leader Brian Gallant’s win in Monday’s provincial election will give politicians and experts time to study fracking while slowing growth of the shale gas sector.
“This pause for the right debate is exactly what we need at this time,” she said.
“Is it absolutely clear what way the new government will go? No, but it gives folks an opportunity to collect their breath and work together to develop a common solution.”
Gallant, who declined interview requests Tuesday, has promised to place a moratorium on the shale gas industry until risks to the environment, human health and water are known.
The position contrasted sharply with the Progressive Conservatives under David Alward, who tied New Brunswick’s economic future and the retention of its young people to the development of natural resources including shale gas.
Alward focused on the idea that the industry would boost the slumping economy, saying New Brunswick was on the verge of $10 billion in private investment if it develops its deposits of shale gas.
Corbett argues that voters rejected that vision by handing Gallant a majority and unseating the Tories’ energy minister in favour of David Coon, who will become the province’s first sitting Green party member.
Coon said he is optimistic the two sides can co-operate on the polarizing issue, which sparked public protests and violent demonstrations last fall.
“There are a number of areas where we can work together,” he said.
“It’s a relief to many people that … there will be a moratorium and everyone can take a deep breath and not be worried about fracking and shale gas exploitation being imminent.”
Still, some observers say it’s not clear how the Liberals will handle the file amid pressure from members of the party and opposition who may urge it not to shut the door on fracking and any economic benefits that could come with it.
Tom Bateman, a professor of political science at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, said he expects Gallant will follow through on his promise to impose a moratorium but will then ease the door open again to exploration.
“It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but they will edge into it because there are a ton of Liberals who think, ‘We need to do this,'” he said. “And the problems in the province are not going away.”
Gallant will also have to find ways to finance a hefty campaign promise to spend $900 million over six years to pave roads, repair bridges and upgrade other infrastructure. Gallant said it would create 1,700 jobs annually.
The province is looking at carrying a projected deficit of $387 million this fiscal year, while its economic growth rate was also the worst in the country last year.
Officials with two companies conducting shale gas exploration and drilling in the province said they would not comment on the election outcome.
Alward, who announced he was stepping down Tuesday, said he remains hopeful that the Liberals will proceed with shale gas extraction.
“I certainly hope that the premier-designate finds the courage to do the right thing and continue to move forward,” he said. “It certainly is an opportunity for our province.”
Three weeks ago, the Liberal government in neighbouring Nova Scotia announced it will introduce legislation in the fall to prohibit high-volume fracking for onshore shale gas, saying it was clear that people in the province were not comfortable with the industry.
— By Alison Auld in Halifax.