A crack opened Friday in provincial policy walls that have kept unconventional natural gas production out of Eastern Canada, when the New Brunswick legislature voted in favor of at least considering making an exception for a rich drilling target.
By a slim 25-23 majority, a new coalition government of the Conservative and People’s Alliance parties passed a resolution to end the former Liberal regime’s three-year-old ban against horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) everywhere in New Brunswick.
The vote enables the new regime to open a target zone in the province’s Sussex region.
Federal and provincial earth sciences agencies estimate 80 Tcf of technically recoverable natural gas and 2 million bbl of oil await industry in the geological formation, which includes the McCully and Frederic Brook targets.
While government leaders predicted the fracking ban could be relaxed by the end of this year, they have given no guarantees. The Liberal defeat in New Brunswick’s Sept. 24 election revived heated public debate that boiled over in 2013 into a violent clash between anti- and pro-fracking factions that burned six police cars and ended in 40 arrests.
A provincial government-appointed inquiry predicted an expert regulatory apparatus could make unconventional drilling safe but added a warning that it would have to overcome deeply personal public fears and environmental sentiments.
“The crux of the dilemma over shale gas isn’t just about the science,” according to the inquiry. “It’s about the varying levels of trust New Brunswick residents have in all levels of government -- federal, provincial and municipal -- and the province’s resource sector.”
The root causes of the shale gas impasse, said the inquiry, “are directly related to the process for identifying, evaluating and approving any resource development project. Much of that process is driven by the quality of the relationships local communities and Indigenous people have with government and industry officials.”
Similar community and political divisions drove the Quebec, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland governments to enact prohibitions against fracking, which remain in force.
The New Brunswick move to relax the restriction has raised hopes for replacing depleted Atlantic offshore gas production and improving prospects for a liquefied natural gas (LNG) export project on the Nova Scotia coast, Goldboro LNG.
Goldboro was awarded a key government permit in November but a final investment decision has not been made.
Atlantic Canada’s lone onshore gas producer, Corridor Resources Inc., has unconventional properties in New Brunswick’s Sussex area and has kept alive plans for a 10-well pilot project if the new government is able to make a regional exception to the drilling ban.