A provincial consultation tour asking for feedback on proposed shale gas regulations ran into stiff opposition to the controversial mining practice of hydro-fracking during a meeting in Durham Bridge on Monday.
A steady stream of opponents walked to the microphone and explained to Louis LaPierre, a professor emeritus in biology at the University of Moncton, who is leading the shale gas panel, why they opposed shale gas exploration.
The opposition also came from a former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister.
Tony Huntjens, who retired from politics instead of running in the 2010 election, said he was "flabbergasted" by his former colleagues’ decision to move forward with shale gas exploration and, in particular, hydraulic fracturing.
"I belonged to the party that is now in power and I was always of the opinion that they listened to the people before they acted," Huntjens said.
"That was the promise that they made in the last election when the Liberals were not listening to much of what we were saying. So I'm sorry to see this happen."
Huntjens has come out in the past to say he was disappointed by the Progressive Conservative government's handling of the shale gas issue.
The former cabinet minister pointed to health problems in U.S. communities where hydro-fracturing is being done now.
He also questioned how many inspectors would be hired by the provincial government to police the new regulations.
"The army of people you will need will swallow up any royalties," he said.
Huntjens, who was the MLA for Charlotte-Campobello, recalled a quarry project in his southwestern riding where there were not enough inspectors to enforce the provincial rules.
"I'll be honest with you, they couldn’t manage that," Huntjens said.
"As a MLA for that community, I had to stand up on a number of cases because they were not following through on what was supposed to be taking place in that community. And you are going to tell me that they can monitor everything from northern New Brunswick to southern New Brunswick and make a good decent job out of it? I don't believe it. So let's get to the truth of the matter, this is a dangerous experiment that you are going with."
The shale gas issue has put other Tories in tough spots.
The Progressive Conservative government has faced mounting opposition to shale gas exploration in New Brunswick.
Environment Minister Bruce Fitch and Natural Resources Minister Bruce Northrup unveiled a new slate of regulatory changes last month that are designed to safeguard the environment if the industry takes hold in New Brunswick.
The changes would also see the provincial government and communities reap a bigger share of royalties from any shale gas extracted from the ground.
There are 116 different changes to the regulatory framework that oversees the oil and gas industry.
The provincial government is also promising to impose higher fines on companies that break the new rules.
Hydro-fracking is a process where exploration 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.
Opponents to the shale gas industry say the hydro-fracking process can cause water and air pollution.
‘Bigger than NB Power’
There were about 90 people who showed up to the shale gas meeting in Durham Bridge on Monday.
Several of those citizens told LaPierre they believe the issue of developing shale gas should be decided in a provincial election.
There were also parallels drawn between the shale gas controversy and the former Liberal government’s botched attempt to sell NB Power to Hydro-Quebec.
Stephen Hart, a family doctor, summed up the mood of many at the public hearing on shale gas development.
"It's much bigger than the sale of NB Power," he said.
"If this government truly wants public consultation, take it to an election," Hart said.
Sharon Scott-Levesque said she wanted to know why Premier David Alward was critical of the shale gas industry in opposition but changed his mind after he won the 2010 election.
"If Mr. Alward thinks this is such a great thing for New Brunswick, then call an election and let the people speak."
There were others in the meeting that pointed to the provincial government’s literature and questioned how the issue was being downplayed.
Peter de Marsh of Taymouth said the provincial government isn't even using the words shale gas during the consultation.
"Let's have a clear, open and honest debate about what we're really concerned about," he said.