Natural Resources Minister Bruce Northrup is promising that MLAs will get a free vote on how they feel about the future development of the shale gas industry and hydraulic fracturing.

The Progressive Conservative government is preparing for a debate on the controversial industry next Tuesday, but some of its members are feeling the pressure in their ridings from anti-shale protesters.

York North MLA Kirk MacDonald, a former cabinet minister in the Bernard Lord government, presented a petition opposing the shale gas industry with almost 16,000 signatures earlier this week.

MacDonald stressed that he was not breaking ranks with his party but offering the views of his constituents.

The upcoming motion, which is being sponsored by Northrup and Environment Minister Margaret-Ann Blaney, will endorse the "responsible development of the shale gas industry."

The resolution is not binding, but even if it were to be, Premier David Alward’s Tories hold a significant majority inside the legislative assembly.

But the province’s natural resources minister may be giving any Tory MLAs, such as MacDonald, the option of voting with his constituents, who want a ban on shale gas development.

Northrup was unequivocal when asked whether the shale gas motion will be a free vote.

"It will. Definitely. Definitely a free vote," Northrup said on Wednesday.

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Tory MLA Kirk MacDonald said he is not breaking ranks with his party even though he tabled an anti-shale gas petition with almost 16,000 names on it in the legislature. (CBC) ((CBC))

Free votes allow MLAs to vote against their party line without facing any consequences.

Liberal MLA Bill Fraser, the opposition’s house leader, said he isn't sure if he believes Northrup’s statement. He said the test will be how MacDonald votes.

"So it'll be very interesting to see how Mr. MacDonald votes. Will he vote for the people who elected him, or will he vote for David Alward, because David Alward told him to vote a certain way?" Fraser said.

The Tory MLA was not tipping his hand earlier this week when he was asked how he would vote on the upcoming motion. MacDonald, however, acknowledged that he did have questions about the industry.

"In families, you sometimes have a difference of opinion," he said.