N.B. election: Did shale gas and fracking sway the vote?

The leaders of the New Brunswick Conservative, Liberal, New Democrat, Green and People's Alliance parties are shown (L to R): David Alward, Brian Gallant, Dominic Cardy, David Coon, Kris Austin. File/Global News/The Canadian Press

An issue that galvanized this election, shale gas and the method used to extract it — hydraulic fracturing or fracking, shows a province divided over its future course – as illustrated by the results of a close, albeit troubled, vote.

On one side, Liberal Premier-designate Brian Gallant vowed to impose a moratorium on the controversial practice “until risks to the environment, health and water are fully understood.”

READ MORE: Liberals win majority government in New Brunswick election

David Alward and the Progressive Conservatives made shale gas development a linchpin in their plans to help bring the province out of debt and create jobs to keep skilled workers in the province, rather than heading to Alberta to make a living.

SEE MORE: New Brunswick election results – 2014

Nearly one year ago tensions over the future of shale gas development in New Brunswick reached a tipping point, as the RCMP broke up a protest encampment near Elsipogtog First Nation.

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Mounties, acting on a court injunction, used tear gas and reportedly used rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators, after protesters blocked Route 134 for weeks in opposition to shale gas exploration in the area — a hot-button issue across the province.

In Kent North, the riding where Elsipogtog and Rexton are located, the Liberals’ Bertrand Leblanc was elected with 53 per cent of the vote. Neighbouring Kent South also went to the Liberals’ Benoit Bourque, ousting the PC’s Claude Williams, the minister of Transportation and Infrastructure under Alward.

Lori Turnbull, an associated professor at Carleton University’s School of Public Policy and Administration, said shale gas and fracking have been a “polarizing” issue throughout the campaign.

She said voters may have been willing to sacrifice other priorities to side with the leader that best suited their views on fracking.

“It’s a difficult issue in the sense that it asks voters to weigh potential economic growth against potential environmental costs -and there are a lot of unknown variables on both sides,” Turnbull told Global News.

“Overall, the issue could affect the election results in that voters who cannot support fracking might support the Liberals, even if they don’t agree with the party on other issues. Likewise, a voter might support the PCs for their willingness to pursue fracking, even if they don’t align themselves with the party on other issues.”

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In the new Memramcook-Tantramar riding, another area where shale gas development was a key issue, Bernard Leblanc beat two-term PC MLA and Minister of Agriculture Michael Olscamp with 50 per cent of the vote.

PC Natural Resource Minister and Deputy Premier Paul Robichaud is out of a job now, losing to Liberal Wilfred Roussell lost the Shippagan-Lamèque-Miscou race.

In Carleton, where voters expressed support for the PC plan to develop the shale gas industry, Tory leader Alward was reelected. It was similar story in Fredericton-York, where PC MLA Kirk MacDonald was re-elected in the riding he has held since 1999 —elected when he was just 23 years old.

Key members of Alward’s cabinet and proponents of the PC plan to grow the shale gas industry, held onto legislature seats: PC Finance Minister Blaine Higgs was reelected in Quispamsis, as did former Alward’s Public Safety Minister Bruce Northrup and Economic Development Minister Bruce Fitch in Riverview.

But in the biggest upset, Green Party leader David Coon triumphed over Energy and Mines Minister Craig Leonard in the riding of Fredericton-South.

Coon, a former executive director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, promised to ban shale gas exploration and exploitation, as well as cancel existing shale gas-related exploration licences and production leases.

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NDP leader Dominic Cardy had a wait-and-see approach, promising a two-year moratorium on considering shale gas development, at which point companies looking to exploit the resource would have to undergo tests for health and environmental concerns.

Cardy lost the Fredericton-West Hanwell riding to PC MLA Brian MacDonald.

Gallant’s intent to impose a moratorium falls in line with Liberal-run neighbours Nova Scotia and Quebec, and the Progressive Conservative government in Newfoundland and Labrador — all of which have moratoriums on fracking.

With files from Heather Loney, Emily Baron Cadloff and Laura Brown

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