Shale gas panel chair urges public participation

The chair of the provincial government's shale gas panel is urging citizens to participate in a series of public meetings about proposed new regulations for the industry.

Alward government seeks input on proposed regulations

The chair of the provincial government's shale gas panel is urging citizens to participate in a series of public meetings about proposed new regulations for the industry.

Louis LaPierre, a biologist from the University of Moncton, says the meetings, which continue Monday night in Durham Bridge, are a chance for New Brunswickers to have their voices heard.

"If they don't show up at these meetings and express their concerns, then their concerns may not be heard," he told CBC News.

"It's a time when the government is preparing to draft legislation and the current time there are some drafts out there. If people bring forth their issues, the legislation that's currently out for review could be modified. Their views could be incorporated."

The Alward government is proposing 116 different changes to the regulatory framework that oversees the oil and gas industry and in particular the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing, also known as hydro-fracking.

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.

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.

Stricter rules proposed

The proposed new regulations, unveiled by Natural Resources Minister Bruce Northrup and Environment Minister Bruce Fitch last month, set out strict rules on protecting the environment.

Natural gas companies will also be subject to higher fines if they break the rules. The existing penalties for companies that violate any of the laws governing the oil and gas industry range from $640 to $10,400. But the provincial government is going to hike those penalties as high as $1 million and take more control over levying the fines.

The changes also include overhauling 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.

"It's not always that we have the opportunity to influence prior to the start of the process," said LaPierre.

"This is an occasion where industry is just being considered, being developed, being tested, and it'll be a few more years down the road before it becomes a full-fledged industry, if it does," he said. "And people's concerns and issues could be incorporated into the legislation."

Public has until July 18

The Durham Bridge meeting is the second in a series of eight being held.

During each public meeting there will be an open house session for 90 minutes where people can speak to members of the provincial government's natural gas group. There will also be a 30-minute presentation, followed by a question period.

The first meeting was held in Chipman. Meetings are also slated for Havelock on June 18, Hillsborough on June 19, Grand Falls on June 20, Bathurst on June 21, Bouctouche on June 22, Blackville on June 25 and Norton on July 4.

The provincial government will also accept written comments from citizens until July 18.

The Natural Resources minister has said he'd like to see the new rules in place for 2013.

Windsor Energy Inc. has been granted a five-year lease to continue exploring for oil and natural gas in southern New Brunswick.

Drilling could begin next year, with government approval, the company's chief executive officer Khalid Amin has said.

Meanwhile, Southwestern Resources Canada has abandoned its seismic testing for shale gas this summer, citing delays in obtaining provincial permits.

Testing was expected to be carried out on private properties in Kent County for two or three months, with the permission of the owners.

The delayed testing could push back until 2016 the company's decision on whether it's viable to extract shale gas in the province, Tom Alexander, the general manager for New Brunswick, has said.