POLITICS
05/01/2014 02:36 EDT | Updated 07/01/2014 05:59 EDT

Report about natural gas fracking causes ripples in New Brunswick

FREDERICTON - A report that urges caution before embarking upon fracking is causing ripples in New Brunswick, where shale gas development has set off storms of protests.

Stephanie Merrill of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick said the report by the Council of Canadian Academies highlights a lot of the concerns her group has about fracking, especially risks to groundwater.

"Decision-makers have been consistent in labelling that concern as misinformed and alarmist, and that's really concerning," she said Thursday.

"It's obviously nice to see that those concerns are validated by such a high level panel of experts."

The report released Wednesday says little is known about the long-term impacts of extracting gas by fracturing rock beds and more research needs to be done. It also raises concerns about the risk fracking poses to water resources, land and human health.

Merrill said a moratorium on shale gas development needs to be implemented in New Brunswick, as has been done in Quebec, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Provincial Green party Leader David Coon goes further, saying the industry shouldn't be allowed to proceed at all.

"We don't believe this can be done safely in any way," he said.

New Brunswick Energy Minister Craig Leonard said the province is proceeding slowly with strong regulations, adding that a moratorium wouldn't serve any purpose.

"To put a moratorium in place simply goes against everything the report is saying because the report is saying gather data, get baseline information and monitor what's going on," he said.

"If you have a moratorium you can't do any of that because there's no activity taking place."

But Liberal Opposition Leader Brian Gallant said there should be a moratorium on fracking, not on science and research.

"It's very clear that there's not enough information, there's not enough scientific data and there are just too many unknowns to proceed right now," Gallant said.

Leonard said the New Brunswick Energy Institute is doing a number of studies and collecting the necessary baseline data so that monitoring can be done once a shale gas industry takes off.

Corridor Resources president Phil Knoll issued a statement, saying his company has operated safely in New Brunswick for more than 10 years and encourages responsible resource development.

"In addition, New Brunswick has developed robust regulations that reflect the best environmental practices for natural gas activity — an approach the report suggests," he said.

SWN Resources, which recently applied for environmental impact assessments to allow for four exploratory wells, said in a statement that it needs more time to study the report before commenting.

The company has faced strong public opposition to its exploration efforts in the province.

Last October, a protest near Rexton turned violent when police enforced a court-ordered injunction to halt the blockade of a compound used by SWN Resources to store equipment. Officers arrested 40 people and six police vehicles were burned.

The governing Progressive Conservatives are touting the development of a shale gas industry as a way of creating jobs and fuelling the province's sputtering economy.

During his state of the province address in January, Premier David Alward said his government will push ahead to create a shale gas sector because the cost of not doing so is too great.