Premier David Alward is drawing a direct link between allowing shale gas exploration in the province and his government’s ability to pay for new programs that fight poverty.
Alward said his Progressive Conservative government will soon fund two expensive programs recommended in the Poverty Reduction Plan, which was a process started by the former Liberal government but agreed to by the Tories.
But he said the provincial government needs more money from resource development to help pay for the programs that will extend prescription drug coverage to low-income earners and offer low-income children dental and vision benefits.
Alward connected fighting poverty with allowing shale gas exploration, which is the biggest controversy he's faced so far, by pointing to Alberta, where oil and gas revenues help pay for generous government programs.
"They have the best education and health-care systems in Canada, and there's a reason for that," he said.
The premier would not put a dollar figure on how much revenue shale gas could generate for New Brunswick. He said that's why exploration needs to continue.
The shale gas debate has been an extremely polarizing issue in recent months.
Opponents to shale gas exploration have staged large protests in front of the legislature and even inside the Centennial Building, the downtown Fredericton office building that houses the premier's office.
There have also been protests and blockades in rural communities.
One company, SWN Resources Canada, has halted its shale gas exploration for the rest of the year after some of its equipment was vandalized.
A recent Corporate Research Associates poll showed attitudes in the urban centres of Saint John and Moncton were conflicted on the issue. Those surveyed were open to natural gas exploration but they were more opposed to shale gas exploration and the potential for the contentious practice of hydro-fracking.
The Alward government will soon extend dental and vision coverage for low-income children and he will also bring in prescription drug coverage for all low-income New Brunswickers.
The premier said those initiatives are important but they carry a hefty pricetag in a time of fiscal austerity.
"It sure is, and again, that's one of the reasons why we need to be developing our economy," Alward said.
The Alward government has spent its first year in office trying to ratchet back government spending. Finance Minister Blaine Higgs has ordered government departments to cut spending in the hope of eliminating the $450-million deficit.
Alward said the provincial government is looking to shale gas revenues to help cover some of the these new programs.
"You only have to look what's taking place in Newfoundland and Labrador, how that province is going forward economically and as a society, some of the programming they've been able to do because of the increased revenues," he said.
Alward has faced controversy over his decision to allow exploration for shale gas. He said the exploration is necessary to determine just how lucrative the industry could be in future years.
The provincial government has made changes to the rules governing shale gas exploration and hydro-fracking.