The Alward government's shale gas rules are coming under fresh scrutiny after environmentalists discovered a mining company has been given a permit to conduct seismic testing in wetlands.
Tina Beers, a Kent County resident, was fishing in the Harcourt area recently when she found seismic testing equipment stuck in a wetland, located in the Richibucto River system.
She took pictures of the equipment and forwarded those images to Stephanie Merrill of the Conservation Council, who asked the Department of Environment for the company’s permit.
The provincial government released a permit that gives SWN Resources Canada the right to test in a wide area.
"The company is allowed to go into wetlands and buffers of watercourses in eight counties across the province. So I think that was a bit of a shock, even to me," she said.
Premier David Alward said Wednesday that environmentalists have nothing to fear.
"I have full confidence that the industry will be responsible and that we are putting in place, and have put in place, the necessary, robust regulations to not sacrifice one for the other," he said.
Alward added the work being done now is seismic exploration, not drilling.
His Progressive Conservative government wants to encourage prosperity and protect the environment, and won't put one before the other, he said.
"At the end of the day, success will be built on having responsible development, ensuring that we have a safe water supply ... safe air quality for our people and safe communities, and at the same time having economic prosperity," Alward said.
Rules not made into laws
In February, Environment Minister Bruce Fitch released the provincial government's rules for shale gas development, which included protection for watercourses and wetlands and the entire package was called very strict
"We've come up with a set of rules and I think the rules are very, very favourable to the environment," he said.
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Energy Minister Craig Leonard said at the time the new rules would require setbacks up to three times more than elsewhere.
Leonard also called the new rules, "one of, if not the most strict regulatory systems for natural gas development in North America."
But the rules weren't written into law as environmentalists warned at the time.
Rules can be bypassed, environmentalist warns
The Conservation Council's Merrill said the rules are set up in a fashion that companies can easily bypass them.
"All the company or any proponent of anything has to do is apply for that variance, go through a process with Department of Environment, pay the fee for the permit, get it stamped, and away they go," she said.
Environment Minister Bruce Fitch told CBC News on Tuesday morning he would respond to Merrill's questions later in the day.
CBC News was subsequently told by his department that Fitch wasn't available for an interview but the department promised "information" would be released.
That information also failed to materialize from the Environment Department.
The provincial government has faced protests and criticism for two years about the expansion of a shale gas industry in New Brunswick.
The Alward government has indicated companies should be able to conduct tests to see if a viable industry can be established in the province.
Opponents of the shale gas industry are worried the seismic testing being conducted in places, such as Kent County, could lead to the use of the controversial hydraulic fracturing process.
Hydro-fracking is a mining process where companies inject a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the ground, creating cracks in shale rock formations. That process allows companies to extract natural gas from areas that would otherwise go untapped.
Hydro-fracking opponents worry the process could damage the environment.
A Corporate Research Associates poll released last month said nearly half of the 400 New Brunswick adults polled, 48 per cent, believe shale gas is critically important or important but not critical to the province's economic future, while 44 per cent say it is not very important or not at all important to the economy.