New Brunswick's natural gas industry is too valuable for the provincial government to dismiss it as an environmental risk, according to an economic development analyst.
Several New Brunswick cabinet ministers and civil servants have been touring the United States looking at the regulatory frameworks different governments have put in place to govern the contentious practice of hydraulic fracturing, or hydro-fracking.
Southwestern Energy, which is planning to search for natural gas in New Brunswick, is now facing lawsuits in Pennsylvania and Arkansas over allegations by citizens that hydro-fracking contaminated their water.
Environmentalists and community groups in New Brunswick have also been vocal in their opposition to the mining practice, saying they are worried that it could threaten their water supply.
David Campbell, president of Moncton-based Jupia Consultants Inc., said the province's natural gas industry represents an economic opportunity for rural communities.
"Rural New Brunswick is struggling right now economically. Most of the communities are losing population with the exception of a few that are on the periphery of places like Moncton," Campbell said.
'We do need strong regulations. We need oversight but we shouldn't stop the development of a very important industry because of a theoretical concern over a potential problem.' — David Campbell
"So in my opinion, this should be a golden opportunity to revive the rural economy in certain parts of New Brunswick."
The New Brunswick government has recorded more than $374 million worth of investment from gas companies since natural gas reserves were discovered in 2000.
Royalties from a major find could add up to $225 million a year once production begins.
Campbell is aware of the lawsuits and issues around natural gas development in the United States.
Despite those problems, the economic development consultant said people should not assume the same things will happen in New Brunswick.
"One of the advantages of not being first in, is these companies have learned from their mistakes," Campbell said.
"We do need strong regulations. We need oversight but we shouldn't stop the development of a very important industry because of a theoretical concern over a potential problem."
Natural Resources Minister Bruce Northrup has promised to introduce strong regulations concerning hydro-fracking later this year. Quebec has ordered a moratorium on hydro-fracking following a major report on the mining practice.
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.
Texas-based Apache and Halifax-based Corridor Resources are in an exploratory stage of such a project near Sussex. Corridor Resources said in 2010 that formerly abandoned wells could have more natural gas than is available in all of Western Canada's proven reserves.
If sufficient gas is found, Apache and Corridor Resources could team up on drilling as many as 480 new wells.