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The Curious case of Bill 24

Private members' bill would have seen New Brunswick municipalities chart their own shale gas course

by Miles Howe

Bill 24 would have allowed municipalities to petition the Minister of Environment towards vetoing geophysical exploration [Photo: Miles Howe]
Bill 24 would have allowed municipalities to petition the Minister of Environment towards vetoing geophysical exploration [Photo: Miles Howe]

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – In December, 2012, longtime Liberal MLA for Memramcook-Tantramar, Bernard Leblanc, quietly brought forward a private members' bill that, if passed, could have fundamentally altered the course of New Brunswick's relationship to seismic testing and shale gas exploration. Leblanc's proposal, known as Bill 24, was an act to amend the Municipalities Act, specifically section 25 of the act, which deals with the manner in which municipal populations can petition the New Brunswick Minister of the Environment and Local Government.

Under section 25 of the Municipalities Act, municipal populations can petition the Minister by getting twenty five eligible voters together, who can then call for a meeting. If the Minister is of the opinion that the voters' concerns relate to a municipal service are legitimate (of course this is a big, discretionary, 'if'), the Minister is required to hold a meeting within thirty days. If, at the meeting, at least fifty people or thirty percent of the municipal population are present, and a majority of those in attendance are in favour of the proposal, then the Minister may put forward their recommendation.

While power ultimately lies in the discretion of the Minister to heed the concerns of the municipality, on the surface it appears as a largely positive avenue of communication between a municipality and the provincial government; the kind of interaction that empowers municipal populations, arguably those who best understand the immediate environs in which they live.

So it was that Bernard Leblanc, with little fanfare, attempted to amend this section 25 to allow municipalities to give their own thumbs down (provided they petitioned the Minister and got the people together, as described) to seismic testing and shale gas exploration.

The proposed amendment reads as follows:

25.1: (2) Where at the meeting held under subsection (1) at least

(a) fifty people, or

(b) thirty percent of the people,

who are eligible under subsection (1) to attend the meeting, whichever is the lesser, are in attendance, and a majority of those in attendance pass a resolution to deny consent for geophysical exploration within that local service district or any area within the local service district, this resolution is deemed to have the force and effect of a municipal denial of consent under the Oil and Natural Gas Act and regulations.

It must be added that Leblanc's Bill 24 would have been, on its own, something of a hangnail even if it were passed. The Bill explicitly notes that such a municipal meeting and voicing of public opinion against 'geophysical exploration' would be deemed to have the force of a “municipal denial of consent under the Oil and Natural Gas Act and regulations.” The problem with this wording, although it does sound nice, is that there is no such thing as a municipal denial of consent under the Oil and Natural Gas Act of New Brunswick.

On its own, if anything, Bill 24 would have provided an awkward moment in the Fredericton Legislature, where potentially a Minister of the Environment would have to bring forward the anti-geophysical exploration sentiments of a recent municipal meeting, only to have the Minister of Energy and Mines tell them: 'So what?'

Combined with amendments to the Oil and Natural Gas Act, amendments which would allow municipalities to have an actual veto power of geophysical exploration, Bill 24 could have been a game-changer in terms of democratically muzzled and ignored municipalities needing to take to the highways of New Brunswick to voice what was already a well-known majority opinion against shale gas exploration.

If Kent County hadn't wanted geophysical exploration, which, judging by signed petitions gathered from the area, they clearly did not, no one would have needed to be arrested, or spend a summer standing by the sides of highways in indignation. The whole issue could have resolved itself democratically.

Business bureaus in Saint John and Fredericton could have subsequently squealed with the rage of a capitalist scorned for shale gas until they were blue in the face; it wouldn't have mattered as their jurisdiction would have been overstepped. Perhaps less attention would have been given their mewling on an issue that did not involve them or stand to as directly impact their own well-being. If they wanted shale gas development in downtown Saint John and Fredericton, well, that would have been their business.

As it stands, the provincial New Brunswick Liberals have refused to comment on the issue of mothballed Bill 24, which is kind of odd, but also not so much.

Bernard Leblanc has seen three terms in office representing Memramcook-Tantramar, and in those three terms he has seen his represented party flip, flop, and flip again on the issue of shale gas in New Brunswick. It was Liberal Shawn Graham, remember, who introduced the whole mess of SWN's million-hectare land lease to New Brunswick. This was in Leblanc's first term.

Leblanc survived the Liberal purge of 2010, when, swept aside by David Alward's Conservatives, the Liberals couldn't really say much with any credibility against shale gas (at least as it pertained to SWN), as it was them who had invited the proverbial beast to the dinner table. It was then that Leblanc put forward Bill 24, as members of the opposition are apt to introduce popular private members' bills that have no chance of passing.

Now though, with the Liberals back in power, riding through on an anti-shale gas platform (did Brian Gallant really say anything else of relevance in the September, 2014, provincial election?), Leblanc and Gallant's handlers have hushed their tongues on Bill 24. Rather than a legislated moratorium, so far New Brunswick has Gallant's 'five conditions' that need to be met before shale gas can proceed. So far, there is a first reading of Bill 9, an amendment to the Oil and Natural Gas Act. Even though this amendment speaks to prohibiting hydraulic fracturing, there is still Ministerial discretion, which, apparently, will be satisfied once/if the 'five conditions' are met.

Democratically, potentially-impacted municipalities are no more empowered than before. Indeed, one might argue that it is only their pitched battle against shale gas exploration that even led to Gallant's electoral platform to begin with. Some might say he owes them his win. The populace is once again left with the role of governmental watchdog, hoping that the Liberals do not bow to the tut-tutting Western premiers or the Frank McKennas of the world, satisfied to call New Brunswickers a 'mob mentality' simply because they'd rather have clean water.


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Comments

The bill have to be passed.

The bill have to be passed. It is for the welfare of the citizens but government always put their leg into it and make it a issue. Why they are not applying it and then notice its merits and De-merits, after this go to a conclusion.

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