The federal Environment Minister is voicing support for shale-gas exploration in New Brunswick as the province struggles to avoid being left behind in the Atlantic region's pursuit of energy resources.
Peter Kent acknowledges that having a "drill rig in one's backyard is not the most pleasant of visions" but added the potential economic benefits to a province like New Brunswick "are significant."
His support follows that of former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna, who delivered a strongly worded speech in Saint John this week, arguing the province is facing "unprecedented challenges to our survivability."
New Brunswick is the only province east of Manitoba not to have a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," as the controversial drilling technique is called. The province, desperately searching for an economic boost, is trying to build a case for shale-gas exploration.
On Friday, the province will release new rules governing exploration and development activities with an eye to having several companies in the field this summer and conducting test drills by 2014. It wants to see how much of the resource it has and whether it can be extracted economically. This, despite criticism from environmentalists and calls for a moratorium from the province's Liberal opposition, the party Mr. McKenna once led.
Mr. Kent, meanwhile, seems to have no qualms. "I would say there has been a little bit of, again, exaggeration, misrepresentation and even scare journalism in terms of overstating the risk [of fracking]," Mr. Kent said in an interview. "… The technology and the chemicals – the cocktails or the soups that have been used – the technology has improved significantly in recent decades."
The process of extracting the gas has triggered an emotional debate because of fears of contaminating natural water sources as it requires millions of litres of water and chemicals to be shot underground. Some of these chemicals are known to be toxic.
Just last week, the Federal Environment Commissioner called for more vigorous enforcement of regulations in an effort to keep up with the resource industry boom in Canada. He specifically mentioned shale-gas production. He said that if environmental controls lag, it will result in damage to human health and to the environment.
Mr. McKenna, however, did not dwell on the environmental challenges of fracking. Rather, he said exploiting the resource could potentially generate more than $7-billion in royalty and tax revenues for the province.
"You have to appreciate that we are dealing with a lot of back-of-the-envelope estimates here but I can assure you that more than a few smart people are putting their minds to a New Brunswick scenario because it is so compelling," he said.
Newfoundland and Labrador has been transforming itself into a rich province with its oil and gas.
Nova Scotia is hoping to grow its offshore energy industry, too. Energy companies BP and Shell Canada have paid billions of dollars for the rights to explore that province's offshore for oil. Last April, Nova Scotia's NDP government delayed making a decision on the extraction process until at least the summer of 2014 – after the next election.
Mr. McKenna also talked about the thousands of jobs it could generate, but cautioned much is still unknown.
Mr. McKenna's speech was meant to bolster the government's case for exploration. New Brunswick Energy Minister Craig Leonard said in an interview Wednesday that it "really highlights the economic benefits that can come from a natural gas industry and certainly where a lot of the focus has been on the environmental side, it is a balance to make sure that the public is aware that there is a reason we are doing this …"
The New Brunswick government has boasted about the potential of the untapped gas reserves, claiming there may be enough to light up the province for the next 100 years.
New Brunswick Energy Minister Craig Leonard noted the rules that are to be released will ensure full disclosure of the chemicals used in the process. In addition, there will be requirements on the management of the waste water. It will be captured in tanks rather than open pits, he said.