20 AUGUST 2010
In an ironic and potentially controversial decision Tuesday evening, the Town of Sackville overturned its August 9 decision to ban seismic testing within town boundaries, citing striking a deal with the energy company Petroworth as the only way to protect themselves from any damage the company might do to their multi-million dollar water system.
Sackville made the news earlier this month when Municipal Council declined to permit seismic testing for shale oil and gas within its town boundaries. Petroworth Industries, an exploration company whose Board Chair is Premier Shawn Graham's father, Alan Graham, had received a license to conduct geophysical explorations in southeastern New Brunswick from the Province of New Brunswick on May 14, 2010.
Since that time, Sackville has learned that Petroworth could well conduct seismic testing underneath the town and around its water supply through the use of horizontal drilling initiated outside town boundaries. The company could do this without the knowledge or permission of the municipality. Because municipalities have only surface rights to land within their boundaries, they have no authority over such activity. The company has access to approximately 160 land areas and so their blasting and drilling is expected to continue around Sackville's town boundary despite this municipal decision.
Where agreements with landowners or communities for seismic testing are signed, the company carries out baseline water assessments. This helps establish the company’s liability in the case of c future contamination or damage due to seismic activity. Where there are no agreements, the company does no baseline water assessments. Collecting such data is expensive and beyond the means of many communities.
Given these circumstances, this week Sackville Town Council reversed its previous decision and agreed to allow seismic testing in order to make sure the company will be liable for any damage to their their municipal water systems by the company’s activities adjacent to the town.
Municipal councillor Tusz-King, who is also the Green Party candidate for the Tantramar riding, crafted the preamble and motion that was passed 7:1. She expressed great sadness and frustration at the situation that the Town found itself in.
“We are in a no-win situation because the Province that provided the licence to the company for exploration provides no protection or support for communities in the case of damage,” said Tusz-King. “It is especially frustrating that we have had to spend millions to upgrade our water system since the Walkerton disaster, and now the Province encourages activities that threaten it. The government gives us no means of protecting our water ourselves, while the lease payments and royalties all go to the Province. To add insult to injury, the Province has also expressed distrust of municipalities by criticizing our tax rates. The Province has forced us to incur extra legal and consultant costs, not to mention wear and tear on staff and Councillors, just to deal with the multinational oil company they sent our way. That doesn't come for free.”
Tusz-King continued, “Every municipality within the leased area requires the same expertise, guidance and protection and they are getting no help from Fredericton. Each one is engaging with this company separately, having to become experts and negotiating it by ourselves! Sackville’s reasons for refusing seismic testing two weeks ago were the same ones behind our acceptance of this – protection of our citizens, wildlife and municipal water system. After doing what we still believe was the right thing to refuse seismic testing, we now learn that we can only afford protect ourselves if we play ball with the company! It’s a perverse system.”
In reversing its position, the Town of Sackville placed some conditions on the company. One was that there should be “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.” This recognizes that the profits from these ventures go offshore while the risk remains within the community.
According to Green Party president Janice Harvey, this situation is a vivid demonstration of two realities in New Brunswick. “First, municipalities have little power over their own destiny. Second, this province really is run by big companies. The government has chosen to grease the wheels and then get out of the way of this natural gas development. This leaves small communities at the mercy of the company as the best means to protect themselves should problems arise. It’s truly an unequal game. The company holds all the cards and the government is the dealer. The Green Party would put an end to this situation.”
The party’s platform includes transferring more powers to municipalities including subsurface rights within their boundaries and the ability to collect royalties. They would also be given more tools to decide on and pursue development or protection of resources. Regional offices of provincial departments would have the mandate to support municipalities and rural communities in whatever goals they set for themselves.
Tusz-King acknowledged that many people will likely be critical of Sackville Council’s reversal. But she challenged citizens to vote Green. “Those of us most incensed by this untenable situation have the opportunity to change it. The Green Party’s bias is towards local decision-making and self-reliance of communities. Government should be dedicated to the long term good of our communities, not to the profit margins of corporations.”
The following is the statement by Councillor Margaret Tusz-King to the Sackville Town Council in support of a motion to reverse the Council’s previous decision regarding seismic testing within town boundaries by Petroworth:
The Town of Sackville has the responsibility to provide and protect safe drinking water for our citizens, as well as a safe overall environment for people, land, air, vegetation and animals. Upon hearing reports about the environmental risks, on August 9th Council chose to ban seismic testing within the municipality, as well as speak against having the process of shale oil and gas extraction occurring within the municipality.
In the time since our decision to ban seismic testing, we have learned directly from the Deputy Minister of Natural Resources at a public meeting, and from a consultant who has extensive experience with exactly such situations, that our refusal of a contractual relationship with the exploration company, Petroworth, has ultimately excluded us from any processes of baseline testing of our municipal water system and privately-owned wells, which would ensure our legal standing should anything untoward happen during the seismic testing, exploration or production stages.
We have learned that the province offers us no processes (e.g. baseline testing, or evaluation of risks) to protect municipalities or municipal infrastructures against any of these risks, and also plays no role in assisting municipalities or landowners in their dealings with the mining companies for whom the province provides licenses. We have written to the provincial government with specific complaints about this.
Our current situation is this: the oil and gas exploration is going on, whether or not we allow seismic testing within our municipality. According to the province and to other experts with whom we have consulted, we have no power to stop this. So, there could conceivably be drilling for oil and gas going on, right now, on the periphery or underneath our municipality, and we would have no right to knowledge about it, nor have any right to the information about what risks our municipality could be incurring by its activities. We would have no baseline testing done to prove that any future problems were caused by this activity, and so the company would never be held accountable for environmental problems its activities might cause.
By saying no to seismic testing we are now in a greater position of risk than before. We have discovered that the only way a municipality can protect itself from the risks of seismic testing and any drilling for oil and gas that may take place if they find something, is to shake hands with the oil companies and cut the best deal it can. We are all alone in this.
Two weeks ago I supported the majority of Council members and voted not to allow PetroWorth the right to seismic testing. I believe we did the right thing at that time. We certainly got the attention of the province, PetroWorth and the media. Now, with the new information we have received we know we are in a difficult position. And we have to deal with our situation very quickly. My first priority is to protect the people and Town of Sackville and our environment. It is my belief the best way to protect those things which are the responsibility of this Council, is to move that we reconsider and rescind the motion to ban seismic testing in the Town of Sackville.
In its place, I would move that if Petroworth is willing to agree to providing, at their expense, the following four 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.
For information, please contact:
Janice Harvey, President
Nominated Candidate, Charlotte-Campobello
106 Fairfield Rd.
Sackville NB E4L 2X9