Anti-shale gas activists and Mi’kmaq chiefs are warning the Higgs government to prepare for another fight over fracking, now that a moratorium on the practice is being lifted in one part of the province.
The Progressive Conservative government is also facing questions about whether it has fulfilled its legal obligation to consult First Nations communities, who oppose the practice.
“As the rest of the world is moving one way, New Brunswick is moving the other,” said Jim Emberger of the New Brunswick Anti-Shale Gas Alliance.
“On that basis if nothing else, there are many reason to suspect that this could be challenged in many ways,” he said, pointing out the group took the Alward government to court on the issue and has kept in touch with its lawyers.
“Watch this space. …The possibilities are there for sure.”
‘Duty to consult’
Meanwhile, nine Mi’kmaq chiefs said in a written statement they had been “blindsided” by the news. They pointed out a commission on fracking recommended in 2016 that the province “rebuild its relationship” with First Nations before lifting the moratorium.
“The premier must remember the Crown has a duty to consult, and to seek our consent to development in our territory,” Chief George Ginnish of Natoaganeg First Nation said in the statement.
He added that Mi’kmaq should have been consulted when the government “was just considering” lifting the moratorium.
The fierce reaction led PC Energy and Resource Development Minister Mike Holland to call for calm.
He portrayed the regulatory change as just one of “a number of steps” in the process, including Indigenous consultation he is promising to do.
“Let’s just let the temperature down here,” he told reporters. “This is a long-term project. Nobody’s doing anything knee-jerk.”
Holland said $70 million in new investment is possible in the area, but that no development is likely before 2021.
Document not public yet
Higgs revealed the regulatory change in a scrum with reporters Tuesday. He said the order-in-council exempting an area near Sussex from the fracking moratorium had been approved by the cabinet sometime in May.
The order-in-council, normally a public document, wasn’t available on the government’s website Wednesday.
“There remain a few procedural aspects that need to be completed,” said spokesperson Tyler Campbell in a statement. “Once those are completed, we’ll be able to release them publicly.”
The previous Liberal government established the moratorium province-wide after winning the 2014 election.
Last fall, Higgs’s minority government won a vote on its throne speech endorsing a limited lifting of the moratorium in the area near Sussex, where Corridor Resources has been extracting natural gas since 1999.
Corridor halted fracking new wells when the moratorium was put in place.
Area included in Aboriginal title discussions
Holland said Wednesday the area covered by the exemption is limited to around Penobsquis and Picadilly, and it does not extend as far as Turtle Creek and Albert County near Moncton, as the Liberals warned it would.
Even so, it falls within the one-third of the province now the subject of Aboriginal title discussions between the federal government and Elsipogtog First Nation.
Holland said he’s hoping for “a very interactive exchange of information” with Mi’kmaq leaders and believes he can accommodate them.
“This is not an issue that’s going to come down to a yes or no answer,” he said.
But Green Leader David Coon said the cabinet decision shows why the Higgs government should be part of the Aboriginal title negotiations.
“If they were at the table, they would clearly realize they couldn’t just drop this decision without actual consultation with First Nations, with the Mi’kmaq in this case,” he said.
The Liberals criticized Higgs for not being transparent about the cabinet decision last month, but the premier said in question period that with a public vote in the legislature last fall and his promise to implement it by the end of May, “this is no surprise.”
“Now I know it is a shock to the opposition that we are actually following up on what we said we would do,” he said. “We are actually doing what we said we would do, when we said we would do it.”
Liberals considering second reading for bill
After last fall’s PC throne speech vote, then-Liberal leader Brian Gallant introduced a bill to codify the moratorium in legislation. Because the moratorium exists only as a regulation, it is easily amended by cabinet order, without a vote in the legislature.
Gallant’s bill would have changed that, but the Liberals haven’t used their allotment of opposition days in the legislature to bring it back for second reading.
“It’s in the cards,” Liberal MLA Benoit Bourque said Wednesday. “We’re certainly considering it.”