SUSSEX – The Sussex region is home for John Cushnie, the co-owner of dulse snacks company La Dulse Vie. It was also home to a potash mine that closed in early 2016, leaving the economy struggling.
Now the New Brunswick government wants to allow fracking for shale gas in the area to revive the economy by lifting a province-wide moratorium that’s been in place since 2014. But Cushnie, who also owns rental properties in Saint John and Sackville, said the environmental, health and financial risks of fracking aren’t worth it.
The former Liberal Government extended the moratorium indefinitely in 2016 following a commission report on fracking. It said the shale gas industry hadn’t met its five conditions to lift the ban, including proper treatment for wastewater from fracking sites and accommodation for First Nations’ concerns.
The new Progressive Conservative government, which took power late last year, said it will take a regional approach to fracking and will allow the activity in regions like Sussex, where the government says there is enough community support.
Several Sussex-area residents and businesses lobbied for the moratorium to be lifted in 2016. And Premier Blaine Higgs told reporters after a speech for the Moncton Chamber of Commerce January 24 that last election’s result is all the support he needs to proceed with lifting the ban there.
“We had members running – not only our member, but the [People’s] Alliance member – on the development of shale gas, and they were one and two in the race. So we have the interest there to support that,” he said.
But Cushnie and Beth Nixon, owner of the local Ledgers accounting and bookkeeping franchise, say Bruce Northrup, the Tory candidate who won the election and has been Sussex MLA for some time, didn’t campaign on fracking as a key issue.
Huddle’s attempts to contact Northrup through various channels weren’t successful.
Both Cushnie and Nixon are members of the Sussex Area for a Frack-free Environment (SAFE), which was founded in December 2018.
Cushnie said while he stands to save money from lower natural gas prices that comes from local sources, he doesn’t believe allowing fracking is a good move for Sussex or the province. Instead, he’s working on installing solar thermal units for his properties.
“I was initially cautiously optimistic about fracking when I first [learned] about it. But when you actually look at the case for it financially, it’s a disaster. It doesn’t make any money.”
Cushnie referred to a New York Times piece by author and journalist Bethany McLean, whose 2018 book on the American shale oil industry suggests the sector is based on shaky financial footing and promises of large returns are yet to be seen.
The Environmental Cost
Corridor Resources has been operating in Sussex since 2000 and currently has 32 natural gas wells in the McCully Field in nearby village Penobsquis, according to a company release from December 2018. Its website says the assets are 75 per cent owned by Corridor and 25 per cent held by Nutrien (formerly Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan), the owner of the closed potash mine.
The current reserve life estimate of the field is 27 years, according to the December release. Natural gas from there is exported to the northeastern U.S. via the Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline.
Huddle has attempted to reach Corridor via phone and e-mail but didn’t receive a response by time of publication.
Cushnie is concerned site cleanup costs at these wells could fall to landowners, and ultimately New Brunswickers, should fracking companies operating in the region ever go bankrupt.
He referred to a 2011 case in which Newfoundland and Labrador sued bankrupt forestry company AbitibiBowater Inc. for cleanup costs of company assets, including three that were expropriated by the province. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled against the province. And the company, protected by its insolvency status, didn’t have to pay for the cleanup.
“There is a price tag for every fracking site for cleanup,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s the government that has to come in and try to deal with it.”
For Cushnie, a clean environment is also key for his company’s sea-vegetable products and the Sussex area tourism industry. A Chinese business contact told him Canadian food products are attractive because it’s seen as coming from a less polluted country.
“[Dulse] is a product that we grow here, that we can sell nationally and internationally. We had interest from the U.S., across Canada, from Europe and from China, interestingly,” he said. “Us having a clean environment is what sells our products.”
Nixon, who is also a board member of the Sussex & District Chamber of Commerce, is on his side. She said she would rather give up the $6,500 each a year that Corridor Resources gives her and her sister for well pads that are located on their property.
The Nixons’ relationship with Corridor goes back to 2000. Her parents had sold their land to the company then, and in 2004, Corridor approached them again for a second well pad. Nixon said they were reluctant but Corridor said it would try to have the land expropriated if they refused.
“Corridor said they would expropriate us if we didn’t negotiate with them, so we decided to negotiate with them,” she said.
They were approached for a third well pad but they refused, though one ended up being on a neighbouring property.
Nixon’s concerned about what will happen with the wastewater and soured wells. And all that for a limited number of jobs, she said.
“People need to ask their government for a true economic model of how this is going to benefit the province.”
Nixon said renewable energy projects, like the wind farm proposed by Saint John Energy, carry much more potential.
“You’re going to get something that doesn’t have the same health consequences or environmental consequences for your community.”
A Clear Divide
Cushnie, who lives in the rural part of Sussex, said most people he’s spoken to in the rural area are “dead set against [fracking].”
“They know that they’re the people who are going to bear the cost of it because that’s where the fracking sites go,” he said.
The business community is also divided. The Sussex chamber has been neutral on the issue since the early 2000s, said CEO Paul Bedford. He said most of the opposition is due to environmental and health concerns, not business-related.
“We do have that split in our membership base, not only in our [board] directors but in our membership base also,” he said. “We’re not saying we’re for and we’re not saying we’re against it.”
Bedford, who owns QC Pumps and Compressors, says he’s an advocate for fracking.
“A lot of the equipment that we sell and service would be used in the oil and gas industry,” he said.
Premier Higgs isn’t concerned with this lack of consensus at the chamber. He said it only indicates there need to be more presentations about the benefits of fracking.
He said Nutrien has told him a reliable source of gas would “play a role in the decision to reopen [the potash] mine.”
Higgs also said developing shale gas resources locally would provide more than just private investment.
“I’m talking about the fact that we’re paying four or five times the amount for gas than they are out west for our citizens and that our domestic supply is now gone, and we’re sitting on a resource that could offset costs to businesses that are existing today that need a gas supply,” he said to reporters in January.
But Cushnie said there are other ways to support businesses in Sussex.
“We’re all concerned about Sussex. We want Sussex to be prosperous. But this is not the way,” he said. “To be a strong Sussex region what we need is small and medium-sized businesses, and they need to be supported by the province.”