The Alward government has released its long-awaited oil and gas blueprint for how it plans to regulate development of the shale gas industry in New Brunswick.

But the document, unveiled on Thursday by Energy and Mines Minister Craig Leonard, is already being criticized as falling short.

Leonard said it outlines 16 actions that would be needed to capitalize on the sector.

"There is tremendous opportunity in the oil and gas sector — opportunity that can mean great things for our provincial economy and for our future," he said in a news release.

"The blueprint will provide a solid and strategic guide for our path forward, building upon the recent release of new rules for the industry."

He said The New Brunswick Oil and Natural Gas Blueprint focuses on six principles:

  • Environmental responsibility.
  • Effective regulation and enforcement.
  • Community relations.
  • First Nations engagement.
  • Stability of supply.
  • Economic development.

Report offers few details

But the 40-page document put off many key decisions.

It says the government will continue to study the issue of royalty and revenue sharing, with a recommendation expected next year, and it may or may not establish a regulatory commission to oversee development.

The government will work with its new energy institute to identify the economic impact of developing oil and natural gas resources, it states.

In addition, the government will "consider" key recommendations from the province's chief medical officer of health, according to the document.

Dr. Eilish Cleary recommended last fall that each project go through a health impact assessment as well as an environmental health assessment.

"There are social and community health risks from this industry," she had said in her 82-page report.

The blueprint says the government will "examine the possibility" of her recommended assessments.

But Environment Minister Bruce Fitch told reporters the existing environmental impact assessment process already gives the public plenty of input.

"When you talk about the EIA, there's already a significant amount of protection that's in place, and a significant amount of opportunity for people to comment, or weigh in on the debate when an EIA occurs," Fitch said.

Sparks protest

Critics of shale gas development say they're disappointed with the report.

Some residents of the Taymouth and Stanley areas north of Fredericton, where seismic testing has already happened, say the blueprint ignores warnings about hydro-fracking from other jurisdictions.

A small group of people protested outside the legislature during the announcement.

Opponents to the shale gas industry say the hydro-fracking process can cause water and air pollution.

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.

Green party Leader David Coon dismissed the report, saying the Progressive Conservative government lacks credibility on environmental issues.

Water key focus

The energy minister said the first step is to discover the extent of the resources and see if expansion is viable.

But as part of the blueprint, the Department of Environment and Local Government will focus on the issues of water monitoring, water use in exploration and extraction, wastewater treatment, and water-related public information, officials said.

The government also commits to developing a comprehensive water management strategy for New Brunswick, according to a statement.

In addition, the government says it will "balance" its duty to consult aboriginal people with the province’s "constitutional mandate" to manage public lands and resources, the CBC’s Jacques Poitras reported.

Leonard said that while the province continues to lessen its dependence on fossil fuels, there will be a need for natural gas and oil for years to come.

"There is a great deal of history in our province in the oil and gas sector," Leonard said.

"All of our natural resources play an important role in our ability to maintain and enhance our health care and education systems and other social services."

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said incorrectly that exploratory drilling had already taken place in the Taymouth and Stanley area. In fact, seismic testing has occurred in that area.
    May 10, 2013 10:05 AM AT