FREDERICTON - New Brunswick Premier David Alward is promising to deliver a blueprint this fall that will lay out how his government plans to proceed with shale gas development, an issue that has triggered roars of protests for months.
Alward made the commitment in his throne speech Thursday to kick off the fall legislative session, just as supporters and opponents of the shale gas industry rallied outside the provincial legislature.
He said the oil and natural gas blueprint will ensure a regulatory system is in place that includes adequate monitoring and enforcement before the province allows the industry to grow.
"Those are all things that we need to address to ensure that if we are able to develop natural gas in the future that we are going to have as big a benefit as we possibly can for New Brunswickers," Alward told a news conference before Lt.-Gov. Graydon Nicholas delivered the speech.
The possibility of shale gas development brings the promise of jobs and could be an economic boon at a time when the Progressive Conservative government grapples with a $10 billion debt, a $356 million deficit and an unemployment rate of 11.6 per cent — the province's highest in nearly a decade.
As the speech was delivered, outside a large crowd of people — both for and against shale gas development — marched on the front lawn of the legislature.
"New Brunswickers have not given consent to moving forward with a shale gas industry," said Mark Darcy.
"More than 20,000 New Brunswickers signed a petition a year ago, and we're still waiting for government to have public consultation before moving ahead with the industry."
But Lynn Farmakoulis said the province needs the shale gas industry if it is to get out of its financial mess.
"I think it's time we develop our resources and use them," Farmakoulis said.
"We have people who are working in oil and gas out west and I think we have a responsibility to look at this very seriously."
Following the speech, Liberal Leader Brian Gallant repeated his party's call for a moratorium on shale gas development until more research is done to protect the environment.
"New Brunswickers have a lot of questions that have yet to be answered and they are good questions," Gallant said.
"Developing our economy is a priority, but so is our drinking water."
Alward also used the throne speech to encourage NB Power to seek all avenues — including a possible lawsuit — in efforts to recoup the $1 billion in cost overruns for the refurbishment of the Point Lepreau nuclear power plant.
"If a lawsuit is something that makes sense, then that should be one of the options that is evaluated," he said.
The idea has been floated before by Alward and the previous Liberal government under Shawn Graham, but it has so far gone nowhere.
Point Lepreau returned to commercial service on Friday, more than three years after the project was supposed to be complete.
Alward also promised in the throne speech to strike a ministerial committee on jobs and the economy.
NDP Leader Dominic Cardy was critical of that announcement, saying the cabinet should be setting the agenda for job creation, not creating a committee to do it.
"It's as though this government is a spectator at a NASCAR race rather than realizing it's their job to be in the driver's seat and take the province in a different direction," Cardy said.
Gallant also called on the government to stop consulting and start making decisions on job creation.
"It's great to talk about plans, committees and studies, but at the end of the day we have to start creating jobs for New Brunswickers," he said.
Alward said he also wants to introduce efforts aimed at boosting the number of people moving into New Brunswick, as well as increasing the value of commercial exports leaving the province.
The throne speech made no mention of a catastrophic drug plan and the government's plans to balance the books by 2014, both of which were key promises the Tories made during the 2010 election.
Alward said his priority is dealing with the fiscal realities of today.
"Right now, we are focused on the work we need to do with this fiscal year and then to be able to build a budget for next year," he said.
The government also said it will deliver a three-year capital budget during this session and a five-year health plan next year. It also promised to consider recommendations of a committee that reviewed the Official Languages Act and introduce legislation next year.