Progressive Conservative Leader David Alward is facing an uphill battle as he tries in the final days of the election campaign to persuade voters that New Brunswick’s environment regulations are tough enough.

Alward has tried to turn the election into a referendum on his plan for shale gas development, even labelling his campaign bus the "Say Yes Express."

And at every event, he underscores a series of regulations his government has put in place to protect the environment, including setbacks and baseline water testing.

During the CBC TV leaders’s debate, Alward pledged "to safely and responsibly develop our natural resources like we've always done … We have an opportunity to take full advantage of our natural resources in a safe, secure way."

It’s clear why Alward repeats that assurance: according to a poll of 800 New Brunswickers conducted for the CBC and Radio-Canada in late August, many remain nervous about shale gas.

'I think the greatest issue is the fact of uncertainty.' - Progressive Conservative Leader David Alward

While respondents supported development by a margin of 49 to 44 per cent, and 64 per cent agreed development can be done safely with appropriate regulations, the poll also contained apparently contradictory results.

A large majority of respondents — 81 per cent — said they would "still worry about the environmental impact" of development even with regulations. (The Aug. 19-31 poll by Corporate Research Associates had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.)

"I think the greatest issue is the fact of uncertainty," said Alward. "You know we work to get that message out, but it's always difficult until people experience things."

He compares the apprehension now to fears about nuclear power when the Point Lepreau nuclear generating station was being planned and built almost 40 years ago.

Now that New Brunswickers have gone decades without an accident, they no longer worry about the plant, he said.

Spotty track record

But critics say there’s another reason for the skepticism: a spotty track record on environmental oversight going back decades.

NDP leader Dominic Cardy points to the 2011 decision to backtrack on wetlands protection in favour of development.

At the time, then-PC Environment minister Margaret-Ann Blaney said she had to "find a balance between promoting the environment and fostering the economic development our province needs."

Cardy also notes the recent report by Ombudsman Charles Murray, which criticized PC and Liberal governments for never applying 2002 waterway certification regulations, despite repeated applications by local conservation groups.

Murray told the CBC that the situation had led to a breakdown in trust between those groups and the province.

"The relationship between the department and those groups has decayed over time, because the department has lost credibility and those groups have come to the conclusion the department is not being honest with them about the situation," he said.

Other examples include:

  • Residents of Penobsquis who lost their residential water wells blamed seismic testing by a nearby mine, but complained that the regulatory system made it impossible for them to prove their case. "The experience that it left with me and a lot of the people involved in it is that there is absolutely no environmental protection," said resident Chris Bell.
  • A recent report by the Reuters news agency revealed that there are air-quality problems at Irving Oil’s tanker-car terminal  in Saint John, which got provincial approval in 2012 without an Environmental Impact Assessment.
  • The Conservation Council of New Brunswick has traced a history of health concerns about the Belledune lead smelter, including concerns by federal scientists that provincial assessments did not meet the standard for peer review.
  • In 1998, when the Liberals were in office, the Environment Department blocked a request from public health officials for a full assessment of a planned Irving Oil refinery upgrade.

"The last 20 or so years especially there's been a slow degradation across a lot of different files in different departments that affect the environment," Cardy said. "There's a real lack of confidence that people have in that. That contributes to it."

Like Cardy and the NDP, the Liberals are promising a moratorium on shale gas development, even though they argued in 2010, while they were still in government, that existing regulations were enough.

At the same time, Alward, who was then in opposition, was raising the alarm about fracking. He told the Legislature that "many problems have been reported" and that "the process has been known to result in dangerous chemicals ending up in the water table."

Alward says now that he was merely questioning the adequacy of the regulatory system, and argues that his government put in place stricter measures that should reassure people.

"We did our homework," he said. "We've taken the time to review the data around North America and build a set of regulations that are the strongest anywhere. Those regulations can give the people of New Brunswick a strong confidence that it will be done responsibly, safely."

Whether enough New Brunswickers will do the same homework, and come to the same conclusion before they cast their ballots, could determine Alward’s political future.