06/13/2012 12:41 EDT | Updated 08/13/2012 05:12 EDT

Shale gas, patronage allegations dominate New Brunswick legislative session

FREDERICTON - The New Brunswick legislature rose Wednesday following a spring session dominated by debate on shale gas exploration and patronage allegations against the government.

The session saw the Conservative government introduce a new model for public and private pensions, regulations for the oil and gas industry and legislation for an elected Senate.

Premier David Alward, who will mark two years in power this fall, said it was a productive session. But Liberal Opposition Leader Victor Boudreau said it was marred by the appointment of former energy minister Margaret-Ann Blaney as the new president of Efficiency NB, a provincial Crown corporation that promotes energy efficiency.

"He had already appointed many high-profile Tories to many good-paying jobs, but to see an actual cabinet minister and a member of the legislature resign to take this kind of position ... this was done purely for politics," Boudreau said.

Alward has defended the move, saying Blaney was the best person for the job, even though an open competition was not held.

A byelection will be held to fill Blaney's Rothesay seat on June 25.

Throughout the session, the Opposition raised concerns about the province's emerging shale gas industry and fracking, which involves the use of water and chemicals to fracture layers of rock to release pockets of oil and natural gas.

The Liberals want a moratorium on shale gas exploration until safety issues are addressed. But the government has refused to impose such a ban, saying there is plenty of time to ensure all safety concerns are satisfied.

During the session, the government introduced a bill with 116 changes to oil and gas regulations, including fines of up to $1 million for any violators.

For a time Wednesday it appeared the government was willing to support an Opposition bill on shale gas development.

Municipalities have the power to block oil and gas exploration within their boundaries, but unincorporated areas don't have that same power. The Liberals introduced legislation that would have extended that power to unincorporated areas.

The Conservatives supported the bill on second reading but refused to allow third reading for passage before the end of the session. It will now die on the order paper.

"It tells me that they are just grandstanding, trying to pretend they are in support of a particular issue when in fact they're not," Boudreau said.

But government house leader Paul Robichaud said the Opposition knows the bill would require study, and could not be rushed through to become law.

"It's proof to me they were just playing political games and their intention was not to pass that bill," Robichaud said. "It was to make some political points before the end of the session."

Also during the session, Natural Resources Minister Bruce Northrup came under fire when he backtracked on a plan to force the closure of illegal deer farms by the end of this week. The deadline was suspended while the government studies the issue.

A bill that would allow New Brunswickers to elect nominees for the Senate will go to committee for study this summer and return to the legislature this fall.

The Opposition wanted the premier to ask the prime minister not to fill the three Senate vacancies that will occur before elections can be held in 2016, but Alward brushed aside the request.

Wednesday was Boudreau's last day as the interim Liberal Leader, a position he's held since soon after the 2010 provincial election, when former premier Shawn Graham lost power.

The party will hold a leadership convention Oct. 25 in Moncton.