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New Brunswick Premier David Alward stands on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 15, 2011. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)
New Brunswick Premier David Alward stands on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 15, 2011. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)

Letter from N.B.

New Brunswick Premier feels pressure from shale-gas fracking Add to ...

How many hot potatoes can David Alward juggle?

The Premier of New Brunswick, whose Progressive Conservative government earlier this month passed its one-year anniversary of being sworn in, risks becoming embroiled on multiple fronts as he tackles some of the hot-button topics that hurt his predecessor.

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The biggest controversy in the province is the possibility of hydraulic-fracturing for shale gas, a debate opponents have kept simmering for months. The government has rejected calls for a referendum on the topic but this week pushed back at a company accused of doing seismic testing in Sussex without the municipality’s approval.

Adding fuel to the political fires were two announcements Wednesday: the government will restructure NB Power and take another look at reforming early French immersion.

These are risky topics.

Parents fought back hard at the push by former premier Shawn Graham’s Liberal government to scrap early immersion. And his attempt to sell NB Power, which he pitched as “transformational change,” sparked huge public opposition and scuppered his chance at re-election last fall.

Many opponents of “fracking” for shale gas see themselves as the natural heirs of the NB Power fight, which they believe proved a government could be vulnerable to pressure on an issue close enough to home or pocketbook. The debate has become heated enough to spark questions on the state of provincial democracy.

The Alward government never got much of a honeymoon period. They inherited a province badly in debt, with a huge deficit, and have seen the financial situation go from bad to worse.

A Department of Finance update issued this month projected the deficit would climb in the 2011/12 fiscal year by $65.5-million, to $514-million. The province also lost 6,000 jobs in the first quarter of the year.

Against this backdrop, the government has taken to portraying shale gas extraction as a way to raise revenue necessary for social programs. Mr. Alward has ruled out a referendum on fracking – in spite of coming to office on a promise of more public consultation – and argues that their platform was approved by voters in last fall’s election.

Page seven of last year’s Tory platform included a trio of bullet points about mining and natural gas, among them a pledge to support “responsible expansion of the natural gas sector.” But critics say the government is not living to the promise of the rest of the line: “while ensuring the safety and security of homeowners and our groundwater supply.”

The government can take some solace in a September poll on shale gas exploration, by Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates, which showed that public opinion in Moncton and Saint John, while split, is weighted in favour. But another poll by the same firm showed that satisfaction with government and support for the Tories both dropped sharply over the summer.

That period was when shale gas protests were at their peak. Some of the tension dissipated when one company said it would stop exploration until next year. But the issue has bubbled along at the local level, where a series of town councils have tried to ban seismic teams from coming into their municipalities for testing.

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