FREDERICTON - Long-awaited regulations for oil and gas exploration in New Brunswick will be released Friday amid heated opposition to shale gas development but also growing hopes of a financial windfall for the cash-strapped province.
Energy Minister Craig Leonard said the plan will outline the rules which the energy sector must follow should it invest in a province that could have enough shale gas reserves to fuel its power needs for a century, according to one estimate.
"This will be the how, where and when companies can explore and drill for natural gas," Leonard said in an interview Thursday.
"It strikes a really good balance of protecting the environment and also incorporating best practices from other jurisdictions and even taking some of those best practices up a bit to improve the protection out there."
The announcement is in response to a discussion paper the provincial government released last May that contained 116 recommendations on well design, royalties, air quality and protection of water supplies.
It comes as the government tries to fend off a public backlash to shale gas exploration that has included protests throughout the province and at the legislature.
Opponents are particularly concerned about hydraulic fracturing or fracking, which they say threatens water supplies — a position the industry disputes.
Fracking involves the use of high volumes of water and chemicals pumped into a well to fracture layers of rock to release trapped natural gas.
Mark D'Arcy of Fredericton said the large number of wells the industry would need to drill would be a blight on New Brunswick's landscape and a danger to the environment.
"This is going to put catastrophic climate change on steroids," he said.
The Opposition Liberals, who have repeatedly called for a moratorium on shale gas exploration until more research is done, said they look forward to the release of the new regulations.
But Liberal energy critic Chris Collins said he hopes they will protect public health and the environment.
"We need to ensure we have the proper regulations and regulatory oversight are in place, and that New Brunswickers agree this industry can safely be developed in our province," Collins said in a statement.
But the shale gas industry has received some political backing in recent days.
Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent voiced his support this week, saying the economic benefits would be a boost to New Brunswick.
Former Liberal premier Frank McKenna has also promoted the growth of the shale gas sector. He recently told a business luncheon in Saint John that environmental regulations should be respected, but they shouldn't block an industry that could be key to helping his home province rebound economically.
Leonard said he knows the new regulations won't please everyone, but he is confident the government has done the work needed to protect the province's interests.
"We feel that we've got a really good, strong document that will ensure the safety of operations in New Brunswick," he said.
Leonard said he doesn't expect any wells to be drilled this year, regardless of the regulations.
"It's more in that preliminary stage of simply doing the work to see where they feel the best opportunities for drilling would be."
Leonard told the legislature last fall that New Brunswick could contain enough shale gas reserves to serve the province's energy needs for the next 100 years.
However, he later said those figures still need to be proven.