New Brunswick

Sussex mayor warns shale gas ban is not the answer

Sussex Mayor Ralph Carr says a ban on shale gas development is not the answer for New Brunswick.

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

Ralph Carr is the mayor of Sussex. He has served more than 20 years on town council.

He was first elected mayor in 2001.

Sussex has roughly 4,200 people and is located 70 kilometres east of Saint John.

Carr has been active in his church and in the local sporting community.

I love living in New Brunswick and particularly love living in Sussex. 

We are known as the dairy town because the rolling hills and valleys that surround us have been home to many family farms for more than two centuries.

So enduring is this image of our ever-evolving community that not even our historically strong ties to the forestry industry and a quarter century of potash mining have done anything to change it.

But in recent years events have challenged our pastoral image and drawn attention to big industry and its possible effects on our environment and the quality of life of those who live here.

The loss of well water at homes located close to the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan mine in Penobsquis has led to a charged debate over what really happened and just exactly who is responsible.

And even though the province has installed a water system, many of those affected no longer trust the mine owners or the government to look out for their best interests.

For others the mine has created opportunity, steady employment, and a chance to raise their families in the same community that they grew up in. Long before any one in Sussex had heard of shale gas or hydro-fracturing, opinions surrounding big industry and the environment were already diverse and deeply entrenched. 

Natural gas discovery

As I remember it, the discovery of natural gas in our area about 10 years ago was unexpected, even to the small exploration company that found it.

They were hoping to find caverns that could be used to store thousands of litres of water that were being removed daily from the PCS mine site but instead found gas, and plenty of it. 

This reserve now supplies the mine with a cheap supply of energy and dozens of wells scattered across the countryside now carry natural gas to the energy-starved American market.

For years the only complaint with natural gas was that we could not get access to it but that changed with the arrival of the global players in gas exploration and extraction.

Drawn by recent finds and emerging technologies, companies such as Apache and SWN Resources, announced their intentions to aggressively search for gas in the deep shale deposits that lay beneath us.

The news predictably drew a mixed response from the community.

While many of us viewed the prospect of natural gas production as an opportunity to strengthen our economy others remained skeptical about the benefits, if any were to be found at all.

Fuelled by an existing distrust of the motives of big industry and a lack of confidence in the government’s ability to effectively regulate the industry those opposed to shale gas development have begun a series of high profile protests.

Judging by the most recent news it appears that the message protesters are trying to deliver to government is that shale gas development in New Brunswick should be completely banned.  I think this is wrong.

We live in a province where 40 per cent of every tax dollar spent comes from Ottawa in the form of transfer payments. 

This year that means we will receive $2.5 billion towards health care and other critical services that we all rely on.  And if anyone believes that these payments are some sort of sacred cow that is simply not the case.

The effects of a reduction in payments to New Brunswick would be nothing less than catastrophic considering our aging population and escalating debt.

Any opportunity that has the potential to reduce our reliance on federal dollars and create wealth within the province needs to be fully explored.

A move by the Alward government to completely ban shale gas exploration from the province before all the facts are known would be irresponsible to the point of negligence and they know it.

Media attention

Last month, Sussex became the focus of media attention when Windsor Energy Inc. directed a subcontractor to conduct seismic testing within the town boundaries before official permission had been granted by the council. 

This lack of good judgment has been used by groups opposed to shale gas development as proof that the industry cannot be trusted and that they should not be allowed to operate in New Brunswick.

Our view at town hall is that this incident simply demonstrates that the legislation surrounding oil and gas exploration needs to become more comprehensive with clearly defined rules.

Any company hoping to carry out exploration with a view to development needs to understand that it will be done on terms and conditions defined by New Brunswickers or not at all.

If Windsor Energy Inc. believes that the public has overreacted to their approach to exploration they have only themselves to blame.

Missteps and mistakes by some companies involved with shale gas production have caused environmental damage and tarnished the image of the industry as a whole.

But the answer does not lie in an out right ban on shale gas production.

We need to send a clear message that we welcome economic development in New Brunswick but the rules must be clear. And to that end our government must demonstrate strong leadership in environmental protection and the transfer of wealth to the people of this province.

Our future depends on it.