New Brunswick fracking study helps keep industry on long-term hold: opposition

FREDERICTON – A study of a fracking moratorium in New Brunswick has endorsed a series of steep pre-production hurdles laid out by the Liberal government that opposition parties say will likely cause the industry to evaporate in the province.

In a report released Friday, the three-member commission acknowledged the province is in desperate need of jobs and economic development, but avoided any firm declaration on whether the threshold the Liberals has set to make fracking viable can be met.

The government has put five conditions in place for lifting a moratorium which include a plan for regulations, waste water disposal, a process to consult First Nations, a royalty structure and a so-called social licence.

“The independent report does state that it’s tough to meet those five conditions that we put in place,” said Energy Minister Donald Arseneault in a telephone interview Friday.

“It confirms putting … a moratorium in place was the right policy to make.”

The commission’s report, released Friday, calls on the province to be more diligent in consulting aboriginal communities and to set up a plan to deal with fracking wastewater before any production begins.

It also calls for an independent regulatory body as a first step in rebuilding lost public trust in oversight of the industry, and suggests in the long-term New Brunswick should shift development policies to areas that rely less on fossil fuels and more on the “knowledge economy.”

“The world is shifting towards integrated energy systems that will be supported by a variety of advanced technologies, most of which will not require fossil fuels,” says the report.

David Coon, the leader of the opposition Green Party, said in an interview that he believes the province would require years to complete the recommendations laid out in the report — and by then the fossil fuel industry will be a thing of the past.

“To achieve those things it will require an extended period of time and by that time we’ll be far down the road to a green energy economy in this province and shale gas energy won’t even be a thought,” he said in an interview.

Interim Tory leader Bruce Fitch says while the Liberals passed the fracking issue off to the commission, the opportunity to create a new industry slipped away.

“The reality of the situation is the whole energy sector has changed so much that the opportunity has been missed … It’s almost a moot point what the government does,” he said.

Fitch said due to the crash in oil prices, most potential development companies have packed up and left the province.

The report acknowledges that with natural gas prices so low, shale gas development in the province is unlikely in the short-term.

Arseneault said the Liberals will use the opportunity to keep pondering the issue, but he offered no timeline on when the province might act on the report’s recommendations.

Former clerk of the executive council Marc Leger, former University of New Brunswick president John McLaughlin and Cheryl Robertson, a former board chairwoman at the New Brunswick Community College, spent the past year on the three-volume study.

The report’s cautious approach stands in contrast to the approach of the previous Tory government, which was eager to proceed with the new industry as a response to unemployment in the heavily indebted province.

A study released in October 2012 on shale gas development rejected a moratorium on fracking and called for a phased-in approach.

However, protests erupted in 2013 when companies explored for gas in rural parts of hte province.

The demonstrations spiralled into violence when the RCMP enforced an injunction to end a blockade outside an energy company’s storage compound in Rexton, N.B. Police cars were torched and dozens were arrested.

The issue dominated the early days of the provincial election campaign in 2014, with former premier David Alward launching his campaign in front of a field of gas wells, while the Liberals promised a go-slow approach.

— Story by Michael Tutton in Halifax

Follow @mtuttoncporg on Twitter.