08/30/2011 02:10 EDT | Updated 10/30/2011 05:12 EDT

David Alward, New Brunswick Premier, At Heart Of Fracking Controversy


FREDERICTON - When he was elected New Brunswick's premier last fall, David Alward rode in on a wave of protest, promising to consult a public he said was fed up with feeling shut out of major policy decisions.

Nearly a year later, Alward finds himself at the centre of similar dissent over his position to proceed with shale gas development in what could be the first test for his Conservative government.

Citizen groups and environmentalists have blocked roads and staged demonstrations at public meetings, government buildings and shale gas test sites in recent weeks in their efforts to halt development.

They are worried that groundwater supplies could be contaminated from hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. The process involves forcing a cocktail of chemicals, water and sand into a gas well to fracture layers of shale rock and release trapped pockets of natural gas.

Alward has remained resolute in the face of the protests, saying his government will not engage with people who set up blockades.

"This is a very emotional issue right now and all sides need to take a breath," Alward said in a recent interview.

Just how emotional the issue has become was evident last week, when the province's environment minister said the Conservation Council of New Brunswick was to blame for inciting a blockade. She later apologized for her remarks.

Alward said his government will ensure that shale gas development is conducted in a responsible manner, stressing that the industry is only in the exploration stage and actual production is at least two years away.

Members of his government have visited Arkansas, Pennsylvania and British Columbia to see the shale gas industry at work in those jurisdictions.

"We want to have the most robust regulatory system in North America," Alward said. "We want to provide clarity for communities, for citizens and for companies."

In what may help explain his government's embrace of shale gas, Alward is also keen to point out the potential economic boon it could be for a province with the third highest unemployment rate in the country.

"We also have to remember about the very good paying jobs that are associated with it as well, and what that means for us from an economic development point of view in the long term," he said.

"I would love to see more young people in New Brunswick or more New Brunswickers in general being able to work here in New Brunswick instead of having to go to other parts of Canada. And this is one of those opportunities that we potentially have to see that take place."

Don Desserud, a longtime observer of New Brunswick politics, said the government needs to do a better job of explaining the benefits while assuring people that their concerns are being heard.

"The benefits seem to be vague and the risks seem to be huge," said Desserud, a former political science professor who is now the dean of arts at the University of Prince Edward Island.

"If the landowners believe that they are bearing all the risks without any real benefits coming back to them, that doesn't seem to be fair."

Unlike in the United States, where gas wells have turned some landowners into millionaires, New Brunswickers do not own the mineral rights under their land. Alward said he is looking for a better arrangement.

Desserud said it will be tough to convince New Brunswickers, who have mobilized protests in recent years, most notably over the previous Liberal government's proposed sale of NB Power to Hydro-Quebec. Some observers believe that failed deal helped lead to the demise of Shawn Graham's government.

Now in Opposition, the Liberals say there should be a moratorium on shale gas development — as has been done in Quebec — until more is known about its possible risks and what regulations would be needed.

"We think that government needs to hit the pause button here and consult with New Brunswickers and work on making sure that all the needs and regulations are in place if this is to go forward," said Liberal Leader Victor Boudreau. "And more importantly, we need the proper oversight."

The government passed legislation earlier this year allowing it to hold referendums on issues it deems significant, and since then there have been public calls for such a vote over fracking.

But Alward has dismissed them, saying a referendum isn't needed because his party's election platform clearly stated its support of the responsible and safe development of the natural gas sector.

There have been a couple of setbacks in recent months for the shale gas industry in the province.

In May, Apache Canada announced it was pulling out of shale gas testing in New Brunswick after two test wells showed disappointing results.

Southwestern Resources Canada prematurely stopped all seismic testing in the province last week, citing safety concerns for its workers that the company said arose from escalating protests. But it said it plans to resume its search for shale gas next year.