A petroleum industry observer says New Brunswick is well-positioned to develop rules governing development of the shale gas industry.

Grant Wach, a professor at Dalhousie University and the president of the Atlantic Geoscience Society, says the provincial government has the advantage of being able to study what other jurisdictions have done and drawing on that experience.

He says he believes it will be possible to design a framework that will satisfy most stakeholders

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New Brunswick's blueprint for regulations overseeing the shale gas industry, including hydro-fracking, is expected this spring. (Orlin Wagner/Associated Press)

"I think it requires education," said Wach, who co-chaired a recent panel discussion at Dalhousie with academics, industry and government representatives about the problems in designing regulations for the evolving industry.

"The more people understand the issues, then there will be less misconceptions about the outcomes," he said.

Blueprint by spring

The New Brunswick government has said new regulations for the industry, including the controversial hydraulic fracturing process, are still being worked out, but a full blueprint is expected to be released this spring.

"A lot of time the project approval gets mixed up with policy," said Wach.

"So if we can have the policy in place before we complete the projects then it shouldn't be an issue because the government, the public and industry will know what rules they're playing by," he said.

"That's what industry would like. They would like to know — what are the rules we'd like to play by. Don't change the rules after."

The provincial government announced in May 116 proposed changes to the regulatory framework that oversees the oil and gas industry, including the controversial hydraulic fracturing process, water usage, construction activities, and monitoring standards.

The changes will include strict rules on protecting the environment and higher fines for natural gas companies if they break them, Natural Resources Minister Bruce Northrup has said.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as 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.

Ongoing opposition

Opponents of the process say it could have a negative effect on local water supplies and many of them have held protests across the province.

But a government-commissioned report released in October ruled out a moratorium on the industry. The recommendations by Louis LaPierre, a professor emeritus in biology at the University of Moncton, were based on feedback from nine public meetings held across the province.

LaPierre said the provincial government should choose two or three sites for hydro-fracking research and development, where regulations could be tested for their effectiveness.

All other drilling should stop, but mapping, including seismic exploration should continue, he said.

New Brunswick's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Eilish Cleary, has recommended requiring a health impact assessment and monitoring the health of the population on an ongoing basis to detect and mitigate any adverse impacts.

The Opposition Liberals, environmental groups, the New Brunswick College of Family Physicians and some municipal governments have called for a moratorium on shale gas activities in the province.

Four scientists at the University of New Brunswick also recently raised concerns about the amount of fresh water for hydro-fracking and the treatment needed for waste water.

The provincial government also plans to overhaul the royalty framework to ensure more money flows into the provincial coffers and is sent to property owners and communities where mining activity is taking place, officials have said.