New Brunswick officials are standing firm in their opposition to a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the province, even as protesters against the practice in the emerging Frederick Brook Shale stage bold acts of civil disobedience.

According to reports by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC), about 50 protesters formed a blockade Tuesday around several trucks owned by Southwestern Resources Canada, a Southwestern Energy Co. (SWN) subsidiary. The protesters agreed to lift the blockade, just north of Stanley, NB, late Wednesday after meeting with a local legislator.

The protest then moved to the provincial capital at Fredericton on Thursday, where about 60 protesters occupied the lobby of the Centennial Building, which houses the offices of Premier David Alward. CBC reported that after about five hours Natural Resources Minister Bruce Northrup agreed to meet with the protesters.

"It is at the early stage," Northrup told protesters Thursday. "The licenses [for shale gas drilling] are assigned; they are legally binding."

In a radio interview on Friday with CBC's Christine McLean, Northrup said, "We have been very clear since day one that we are not putting a moratorium in place. We feel very strongly that we are taking this slowly and doing our homework."

On the recent protests, Northrup said, "Everybody has a right to have a protest, as long as it's done in the right way. Yesterday's [protest at the Centennial Building] was done in the right way. They did their blockade in Stanley and they made their point there. They voiced their concerns, and we will address their concerns in the near future.

"There is frustration out there for sure. It's a very passionate issue. We have pockets in New Brunswick that are dead against shale gas, and we have other areas that are for shale gas. Right now there seems to be more emails coming in that are against it than for it, but we have to get the right material out there and educate people."

Northrup said SWN had a license to perform seismic testing in the province and would be conducting its research over the next six to eight weeks. He predicted that by spring 2012 the Houston-based company would know where it wants to drill a test well.

"SWN has abided by our rules since day one," Northrup said. "Any exploratory wells that will happen in the next two or three years, they will abide by the [regulatory] process. It is quite a process, and the public will be involved as part of that process."

During a 2Q2011 earnings call on July 29, CEO Steve Mueller said SWN was "on schedule to drill at least one well [in New Brunswick] in the second half of 2012. We have started the acquisition of approximately 410 miles of 2D data and hope to have that finished in September. Early in 2012 we plan to shoot a tighter grid of 2D seismic to help give us a better understanding of where to drill our first well."

Northrup said that if the Frederick Brook Shale play proves to be prolific, development could accelerate by 2015 or 2016.

"We have a responsibility to all the people of New Brunswick to continue to look at the opportunities that gas development can present for our province," Alward told CBC on Thursday.

Environmental groups began pressuring New Brunswick for a moratorium on fracking after neighboring Quebec enacted one in March, but Alward and others have stood firm (see Shale Daily, March 14; March 10). Quebec is allowing fracking to continue on a limited basis while it conducts a two-year environmental assessment on shale gas.

New Brunswick enacted tougher shale gas regulations on June 23, including requiring companies to disclose the chemical contents of fracking fluids (see Shale Daily, June 24). The government's move prompted the citizens group Citizens for Responsible Resource Development to reverse its calls for a moratorium (see Shale Daily, July 11).