New Brunswick

N.B. must include municipalities in shale gas future

Sackville Coun. Margaret Tusz-King explains her town's debate over shale gas exploration.

A series of special op-eds written on the shale gas industry

Margaret Tusz-King is a Sackville town councillor. She was first elected in 2008.

Formerly a pharmacist, Tusz-King is an adult educator who  does community development work.

She currently works in project development for co-operatives, and is a founding member of Open Sky Co-operative, a farming enterprise that works with young adults who have disabilities or mental health challenges.

Tusz-King was the Green Party of New Brunswick candidate in the Tantramar Riding in the 2010 election.

It may surprise you how, in New Brunswick, municipalities have few real powers yet have clear and real responsibilities. For example, municipalities must provide and protect safe drinking water, as well as ensure a safe overall environment for its people, land, air, vegetation and animals.

Yet the regulations that govern these responsibilities rest with the province. In Sackville, in the summer of 2010, this contradiction came to light when Petroworth (a hydro-fracturing exploration company) arrived at a meeting of town council, asking the town to rubber-stamp their provincial licence to do seismic testing on two properties within the municipality.

Council, having had no prior warning or information from the province regarding seismic testing and the province’s plans for shale oil and gas exploration, erred on the side of caution, and turned down Petroworth. The town then did some research and met with the Departments of Environment and Natural Resources.

The town learned of the risk of contamination to its water supply during the exploration phase of shale gas/oil development. The town learned that, according to provincial regulations and licensing agreements, baseline testing of water systems is carried out by the exploration companies, not by the province.

So, the town would have to be in a relationship with Petroworth, and have them do the baseline testing for potential contaminants that could result from seismic testing, if the town wanted to have legal protection of its water.

The town also learned that, in order to get information about what was potentially going on regarding seismic testing or drilling on the edge of municipal boundaries, the town would have to get it from Petroworth.

The province would not provide it. Citing responsibility to "protect the people and Town of Sackville and our environment", the council then overturned its previous decision, with the following motion:

"…I would move that if Petroworth is willing to agree to providing, at their expense, the following 4 items, we grant them permission to conduct geophysical explorations within the boundaries of the Town of Sackville in compliance with the geophysical license issued from the Province of New Brunswick dated May 14, 2010:

  1. baseline testing of all private wells within 200 metres of any seismic testing, exploration and/or drilling
  2. baseline testing of the municipal water system, including creating a monitoring well, uphill from our Town wells, so that we can also do ongoing water testing throughout the exploration and drilling periods
  3. have an independent assessor do a biophysical assessment of our whole municipality, the results of which would be fully shared with  and for use by the municipality, and
  4. be open to negotiating other benefits or considerations for the Town of Sackville, including such things as additional economic and cultural support for Town programs, to widen the possible benefits for the Town from the oil/gas industry."

Petroworth turned this down. In fact, Petroworth told the newspapers before informing town council, then went ahead with their testing outside town boundaries regardless.

Currently, the town of Sackville is in the uncomfortable position of potentially having seismic and drilling activities occurring on the borders of town, without any right to information about those activities. Sackville town wells are situated downhill from planned seismic testing, and the aquifers that supply town wells exist outside town boundaries.

Provincial concerns

In October 2011, several members of Sackville town council attended a three-hour presentation by the province’s Natural Gas Steering Committee, intended to up-date and relieve municipal representatives regarding how shale oil and gas exploration would unfold in the province.

When asked what municipalities should do in order to prepare for this industry, town representatives were told that they should "make friends" with the industry on our doorstep, to find out what they are doing and how to work with them. But how do you do that when they won’t talk with you and don’t have to talk with you? Where is the province in this?

It is the opinion of Sackville town council that the province is shirking its responsibilities to its municipalities and to its citizens. By putting the baseline water testing in the hands of the industry, the province has handed over the regulation of this new mining industry to the industry itself.

By requiring municipalities to enter into relationships directly with industry (the same industry that is licensed and regulated by the province), and not providing necessary information, mediation or support regarding agreements between the province and the industry, the province is washing its hands of its role as an agent of the municipalities and indeed of all New Brunswick citizens.

'The province has a big economic problem. It is short-sighted to think that shale oil and gas will be the solution. As history shows us, society is strengthened the most when people work together respectfully. The municipalities are waiting.'

The immediate concerns of municipalities, where the threat of hydro-facturing exists, are ones of public and environmental safety, mostly regarding water, during this exploration phase. If aquifers and wells are contaminated, then there is no future for these communities, because everyone will have to move away.

Longer term concerns include additional ones about water (not only contamination – but will local supplies be depleted during the water-intensive process of hydrofracturing?), issues of infrastructure deterioration (the incredible number of heavy trucks used during hydro-fracturing will accelerate the deterioration of roads), air quality, noise, leftover tailings and contamination once big industry leaves, etc.

And this does not even include longer term concerns, such as the results of excessive global warming as this new shale oil and gas is combusted for energy.

Does the province know of or share any of these concerns? Who knows? Municipalities are not a part of any provincial processes, either in the development of "new and better" regulations, or in the licensing and decision-making regarding the industries now at municipal doorsteps.

And, when citizens hear about the people of Penobsquis, and the lack of support from the province in their efforts for environmental justice from the potash industry, more real fears are generated. Municipalities require and deserve a seat at the table when the province is making decisions and agreements that affect the safety and services that municipalities provide.

Citizens require a voice when decisions are made that pose potentially serious risk to public and environmental safety. The experience of Sackville town council has been one of frustration and disappointment.

Instead of engendering collaboration and support regarding regional economic development, the province has excluded municipalities from any participation. Instead of informing local decision-makers regarding this huge and risky economic scheme, the province has isolated and disempowered the level of government that should be its biggest supporter.

The province has a big economic problem. It is short-sighted to think that shale oil and gas will be the solution. As history shows us, society is strengthened the most when people work together respectfully. The municipalities are waiting.