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letter from n.b.

In this 2009 photo, a Talisman Energy shale gas drillng rig in Saint-Edouard-de-Lotbiniere, Que.Jacques Boissinot

Government politicians in New Brunswick fell into line this week on what was billed as a free vote on shale gas exploration -- but no one believes the result will stop an increasingly heated debate in the province.

Among those backing the motion was Progressive Conservative MLA Kirk MacDonald, who surprised many by presenting in the legislature a 16,000-name petition opposed to shale gas. He said last week that he did so as a way of bringing forward his constituents' concerns.

The non-binding resolution passed the legislature easily Tuesday, with all government members present voting in favour of "responsible" and regulated development of the resource.

But fireworks are expected to continue Thursday when another motion is debated. This one was crafted by the Opposition Liberals and questioned the industry, until the governing Tories used their majority to hijack the motion and remove references to a moratorium and public hearings.

Concerns over the potential for tapping shale gas using a controversial method known as hydro-fracking have dominated politics in New Brunswick for months. The Liberals have been beating this drum hard and on Tuesday the New Democrats, the Green Party and the People's Alliance Party, none of which has a seat in the legislature, issued a joint statement denouncing pursuit of the practice.

The Tories remain on relatively safe ground, politically. A poll released this week showed that satisfaction with the government and support for the party both increased in the last quarter.

But analysts warn that worries about the environmental impact of shale gas extraction is the sort of viscerally felt issue that the Liberals ran afoul of when they tried to sell NB Power. That ignited a tsunami of opposition and the Grits tumbled to defeat in a vote last fall.

The government points to shale gas as a way to help the poor province generate badly needed revenues for social programs. And, in spite of the sharp public debate, Premier David Alward insists there is no need for a referendum on fracking because their platform was approved by voters in last fall's election.

The Tory platform from that election included a trio of bullet points about mining and natural gas, among them a pledge to support "responsible expansion of the natural gas sector." Critics insist, though, that the government is not living up to the promise of the rest of the line: "while ensuring the safety and security of homeowners and our groundwater supply."

This week the government delighted in pointing out that the Liberals had once supported pursuit of shale gas. But the Grits said they had learned more about the industry and were hearing concerns from constituents.

"A wise man changes his mind; a fool never will," interim Liberal Leader Victor Boudreau was quoted saying in the local press.

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