Bernard Richard

Former N.B. ombudsman Bernard Richard says the Alward government and industry need to pause the exploration and development of shale gas in the province until a meaningful consultation has been completed. (CBC)

New Brunswick's former ombudsman Bernard Richard says citizens and the provincial government are at an impasse when it comes to the development of shale gas.

He says there has been a great deal of discussion around the issue but unfortunately citizens haven't seen it as genuine consultation.

"From my perspective it seemed more like the kind of engagement I've seen over the NB Power issue at the time of the Graham government... where it seemed to most people that the government had made up its mind and then decided to consult," Richard said.

"This is what I'm seeing happening here and that rarely works, I think people don't like to be taken for granted."

Richard says after the violent clash between RCMP and shale gas protesters near Rexton Oct. 17 he felt compelled to speak out on the issue.

He believes New Brunswickers are reasonable people who, if shown independent evidence that fracking can be done safely, would support the development of the industry.

"But the type of consultation that has gone on is obviously not sufficient so we're at an impasse in my view," Richard said.

"We've lived on natural resource development as a province throughout history so we're okay with that, but certainly most New Brunswickers would say there is a line somewhere that you can't cross, so getting the right information out there, making sure people are truly engaged, not deciding and then consulting, I think is a very important aspect of this issue."

Energy Institute collecting fracking science

The interim chair of the New Brunswick Energy Institute, David Besner says his group is looking for new, peer-reviewed scientific studies that are relevant to shale gas development, but says he can't reassure people that fracking is safe.

Besner says going ahead with exploration before the scientific research on its environmental impacts is known is a political decision.

"I can't say whether someone individually should be worried or not, I mean people have their worries and part of that has to do, I think, with not being sure or not having enough information."

Besner says he hasn't read all the data out there on shale gas exploration and says he does not consider himself an expert.

"I know that we have people on the science advisory council who have done some water monitoring, but asking me whether people should be worried or not, I can't speak for people, they have to decide themselves," he said.

Besner hopes the Institute will be able to collect and share information on shale gas development with New Brunswickers, and says it is also possible that the council will make recommendations to the government.     

'Prior and informed' consultation

Richard says meaningful consultation to him is defined as prior and informed, which can be a challenge for any government.

'Premier Alward promised he would exercise public engagement and consultation in his platform in 2010, he had seen the disaster that was NB Power under the Liberals and he knew that that would not fly so I think this is a wonderful opportunity to exercise that kind of true legitimate consultation.'- Bernard Richard, former NB ombudsman

"Prior means consulting before you decide and informed means making sure that all of the facts are out there and that they're provided from sources that can be trusted on both sides of the issue." 

Richard says if it were up to him he would pause the process right now, hopefully with the support of industry.

"Instead of spending tens of thousands of dollars that have been paid in RCMP overtime and destruction of property and some lives have been shattered, I would invest in getting good science-based evidence."

After that information has been gathered Richard says a true process of consultation could begin.

"Premier Alward promised he would exercise public engagement and consultation in his platform in 2010, he had seen the disaster that was NB Power under the Liberals and he knew that that would not fly, so I think this is a wonderful opportunity to exercise that kind of true legitimate consultation."

Richard says he has been following the issue, and although he hasn't taken a position either way, it is critical that independent and impartial information be made available to the public.

"We can't be desperate enough to set aside the basic values that we all believe in."