The debate in New Brunswick over shale gas development in the emerging Frederick Brook Shale continued to escalate Thursday, with politicians on opposing sides of the issue trading barbs and setting the stage for a showdown this week in the Legislative Assembly.

Meanwhile some of the province’s First Nations communities say they want new talks with the government to air their concerns over shale gas development.

On Thursday legislators debated a motion by the opposition Liberal party that proposed enacting a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the province, and establishing a bipartisan committee to study and hold public hearings over the practice (see Shale Daily, Nov. 29).

But media reports said members of the governing Progressive Conservative party made significant changes to the Liberals’ proposal, adding amendments that remove all references to the moratorium and the committee. The Conservatives then tacked on additional amendments calling for a strict regulatory framework.

Legislators then ran out of time and the vote over the proposal was rescheduled for Dec. 8. Shortly afterward, Premier David Alward promised that there would be a nonbinding “free vote” on Tuesday (Dec. 6), which calls on lawmakers to support responsible shale gas development.

“I’ve already said our motion will be a free vote, and I’m looking forward to that,” Alward told CBC News on Thursday. He then told the Telegraph-Journal that the provincial government was “trying to reach out to people. People have lots of questions and we’re trying to provide that information.”

Liberals blasted Alward and the Conservatives for their actions. In a statement Friday, the party said the premier and his political allies were “making a mockery of the democratic process” in the province.

“New Brunswickers are very concerned about [shale gas development] and what it could mean for our province,” said Victor Boudreau, interim leader of the Liberal party. “Unfortunately, we have a premier who refuses to allow a proper dialogue with them. He doesn’t even have the courage to put this to a vote on the floor of the house.”

The provincial government signed an accord with the First Nations in 2007, agreeing to consult with them on issues affecting their communities. Harry LaPorte, the Grand Chief of the Maliseet Grand Council, told CBC News that his tribe was concerned about fracking possibly impacting the province’s water supplies.

“The chemicals they pump into Mother Earth to cause this fracking leaks out into our water,” LaPorte said. “You know our water is life, right? Nothing lives without water, so if our waters are contaminated, that means no life around.”

Candice Paul, chief of St. Mary’s First Nation, added that the First Nations could file a lawsuit against the provincial government if consultations do not take place.

“We’re sending a message that we never surrendered our lands, and that we need to sit down and discuss what is going to take place,” Paul said.

Thursday’s political wrangling comes just two days after Kirk MacDonald, a Conservative who represents the York North district, introduced a petition containing nearly 16,000 signatures of people opposed to fracking.

“This petition is another way that New Brunswickers are voicing their discontent for the government’s unwillingness to acknowledge the risks and impacts to our environment and our communities,” said Stephanie Merrill, spokeswoman for the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, which collected the signatures. “People are clearly galvanizing around water and health and are demanding something different from our decision makers.”

MacDonald told reporters he was not breaking ranks with his party by introducing the petition and declined to say whether he supported it. He also did not say how he would vote for the two upcoming votes.

“I brought that petition forward on [my constituents’] behalf, and I want to continue working with them,” MacDonald told the Canadian Press. “Over the course of the last six months we’ve set up all kinds of meetings with the different government departments to try to get their questions answered. Clearly there are still questions out there.”