New Brunswick

Higgs wins confidence vote, set sights on speedy resumption of fracking

Premier Blaine Higgs won a key confidence vote in the legislature Friday and promptly declared that his cabinet could issue an order before the end of the year to allow shale gas development in the Sussex area.

Higgs intends to lift fracking moratorium in Sussex area

Premier Blaine Higgs says he no longer needs legislation that would allow fracking in some areas. (CBC )

Premier Blaine Higgs won a key confidence vote in the legislature Friday and promptly declared that his cabinet could issue an order before the end of the year to allow shale gas development in the Sussex area.

Higgs said because the Liberal opposition injected a reference to shale gas into the government's throne speech motion, he no longer needs to introduce legislation to create exemptions to the provincial moratorium on fracking.

"My intent was we would come back with legislation," he told reporters. "They brought it forward as an amendment to the throne speech. We amended it to reflect what I would have brought forward through legislation, that it's going to be this area.

"So we've already identified that. We've already voted on that. Right now it's not my intention to bring anything more forward in that regard."

Liberal Leader Brian Gallant quickly accused Higgs of going back on his promise to give the legislature more say on cabinet decisions.

"The premier even stated in his speech from the throne that he would share the executive power," Gallant said.

Then-premier Brian Gallant, left, shook hands with Higgs earlier this month after the minority Liberal government was defeated. (James West/Canadian Press)

"So this is his first test, to share executive power on one of the most contentious, hotly debated issues in this province for the last five years, and he failed that test completely."

On Nov. 21, Higgs  said his PC minority government would bring in legislation "in order to move in a regional way, in a very localized way" to create exemptions.

"It does require coming to the legislature, and it does require a vote," he said.

Earlier this week, however, he said passage of shale-gas language in the throne speech would be a green light to implement his election promise to allow shale gas development in areas where there is local support.

"We just did that," he said Friday morning. "We just had it."

Jockeying over throne speech

The PC throne speech didn't explicitly mention shale gas fracking, a controversial extraction method that led to polarized debate and protests in the province in 2013. Gallant's Liberals were elected in 2014 on a promise to impose a moratorium on the process.

Last week Gallant introduced an amendment to the PC throne speech motion calling for the moratorium to stay in place.

The PCs responded with a sub-amendment that would exempt "communities in and around the town of Sussex," where extraction began in 1999 and where people "have demonstrated their desire to proceed with shale gas development."

Lois Corbett of the New Brunswick Conservation Council said reviving shale gas development will spark new protests. (CBC)

That sub-amendment passed 26-22 Friday morning, with three People's Alliance MLAs and Saint John Harbour Liberal MLA Gerry Lowe voting with the PCs.

The amendment with that new language also passed 26-22, and the main motion, a confidence vote in the Higgs government, passed 25-23. On the final vote, Lowe voted with the Liberals against the PCs.

Higgs said during his final speech before the vote that the government would "limit the lifting of the moratorium to one location."

But he also said the communities around Sussex are "asking to go first," which Gallant called a Freudian slip showing the PCs want to allow fracking in other areas.

Liberal MLA explains vote

Lowe, a first-term Liberal MLA, said he voted in favour of the shale gas sub-amendment because natural gas exports through a converted Canaport LNG terminal in Saint John would boost its property assessment and create more tax revenue for the city.

"I represent Saint John," he said. "I was sent here by Saint John and that's the feelings of the people I talked to last weekend."

Saint John Harbour Liberal MLA Gerry Lowe voted with the Progressive Conservatives on a fracking sub-amendment to the throne speech motion. (Julia Wright/ CBC)

He informed his fellow Liberals last week how he would vote "and today nobody gave me the finger," he said. "They're still my friends, I guess."

Gallant has also introduced legislation that would write the moratorium into law. The current statute lets the cabinet create, lift or modify a moratorium with a simple regulatory order.

Gallant's bill would force the government to come back to the legislature to undo or create exemptions to the moratorium. Lowe said he may vote against that as well.

Alliance MLAs vote with PCs

The Liberal leader said he's pessimistic about his bill passing because of the three Alliance MLAs opting to vote with the PCs on shale gas.

Last week, Fredericton-York Alliance MLA Rick DeSaulniers vowed to vote against any lifting of the moratorium, including in Sussex. But Friday he said an exemption there is up to that area's local PC MLA, Bruce Northrup.

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin (foreground), MLA Rick DeSaulniers (background) and MLA Michelle Conroy all voted in favour of the Progressive Conservative throne speech. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

"Who am I to tell Sussex what is right for them?" he said. "It's one thing to have beliefs. It's another thing to impose them on someone you really shouldn't impose them on.

"I can't impose my will on the people of Sussex. I don't think that's right. Am I torn? Yeah, I'm torn. I think I've done what is right. I've done what is right for Fredericton-York and I'll let Bruce [Northrup] and them do what is right for Sussex."

Green Party Leader David Coon said Friday that he could have voted for the original PC throne speech motion, but the language allowing exemptions to the fracking moratorium ruled it out.

Cabinet order could come before 2019

Higgs said he would meet with Corridor Resources CEO Steve Moran next week about how to let the company resume fracking its wells. A cabinet order will come "probably in the coming weeks," he said.

"It could happen before the new year."

Earlier this week, Energy and Resource Development Minister Mike Holland promised PCs would "ensure there's a means and mechanism" to consult people in the Sussex area so they're "confident we're speaking with a licence from that area."

Jim Emberger of the New Brunswick Anti-Shale Gas Alliance said it's still not clear how the government will delineate where it will seek consent.

"The idea of defining and then assessing approval is almost an impossible task," he said.

New lawsuit, protests possible

Emberger said his group would revive a lawsuit against the province that it put on hold when the Liberals imposed their moratorium in early 2015.

Jim Emberger of the New Brunswick Anti-Shale Gas Alliance says his group would revive a lawsuit against the province if Higgs's fracking enthusiasm continues. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Lois Corbett of the New Brunswick Conservation Council said reviving shale gas development will spark new protests and distract from a needed debate on climate change.

"It will, like it did in the last five years, suck all of the air out of the room," she said.

"We will have a long … debate led by folks on either edge of the issue, pro-fracking, anti-fracking, and we will not take the time to develop the strong, sensible solutions like more renewable energy."

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