No need to worry about shale gas testing in wetlands: New Brunswick premier

FREDERICTON – An environmental group in New Brunswick is raising concerns about the provincial government’s decision to allow seismic testing in wetlands by an energy company, but Premier David Alward says environmentalists have nothing to fear.

Alward said in an interview Wednesday that provincial regulations will protect the environment from shale gas exploration.

“I have full confidence that the industry will be responsible and that we are putting in place, and have put in place the necessary, robust regulations to not sacrifice one for the other,” he said.

Stephanie Merrill of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick said her group was surprised to learn that the Environment Department issued a permit allowing SWN Resources to conduct seismic testing in wetlands in eight counties in the province.

Merrill said some people living in Kent County discovered the work being done in their area, including finding equipment in local wetlands connected to the Richibucto River.

Despite the premier’s assurances, Merrill is skeptical about provincial regulations for the oil and gas industry introduced by the government in February.

“(The regulations) are not really worth the paper they’re written on if we don’t have the political will to use them as they are intended,” she said.

Merrill said wetlands should be protected from exploration.

“Wetlands are extremely sensitive ecosystems,” she said. “They are biodiversity hotspots, they are breeding grounds for many of the birds and local mammals, and they are also very important for regulating the water table.”

Opponents of the shale gas industry have repeatedly expressed concerns that exploration and eventually drilling could damage water supplies.

They are particularly concerned with the practice of fracking, which releases gas from shale deep underground by injecting chemically treated water and sand into a well bore.

Alward said the work being done now is seismic exploration, not drilling.

There are about 10 companies licensed to explore for shale gas in the province but SWN Resources is the only one doing seismic testing at the moment.

No one from the company could be reached for comment Wednesday.

The new regulations include a requirement for exploratory wells to have a double casing to protect surrounding groundwater. Oil and gas companies also have to buy $10 million in liability insurance to cover personal injury or damage to property or the environment.

The permit for SWN Resources includes 26 conditions on what can be done near wetlands and water courses. They require buffer zones, regulate where trees can be cut, and mandate temporary bridges if water courses must be crossed.

Alward said the government wants to encourage prosperity and protect the environment, and won’t put one before the other.

“At the end of the day, success will be built on having responsible development, ensuring that we have a safe water supply, and in no way can we sacrifice that, safe air quality for our people and safe communities, and at the same time having economic prosperity,” Alward said.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.