Two former town councillors running for mayor in Sackville are defending their voting records on the contentious issue of seismic testing for shale oil and gas.
John Higham and Virgil Hammock were both serving on Sackville Town Council in July 2010 when the issue first came up. Higham moved that Council approve an oil and gas company’s proposal to conduct seismic testing in the Sackville Basin area, while Hammock voted with a majority of other councillors to oppose any testing by Petroworth Resources Inc.
Now, nearly six years later, Higham says he didn’t realize at the time that if his motion for testing had been approved, the town would have lost any later opportunity to stop fracking within its boundaries.
“We were hoodwinked by the province and by the developers,” Higham says. “When they came in, they told us this is seismic, this is a seismic exercise, all you have to do is approve a seismic approach,” he adds.
Higham says that once he found out that approving seismic testing could allow the company to go all the way to production, he supported resolutions imposing strict conditions on testing and eventually calling for a province-wide moratorium on fracking.
Higham acknowledges, however, that in December 2011, he voted against a motion put forward by his mayoralty opponent Virgil Hammock calling for a complete ban on fracking in the province.
“The moment we asked for a ban, it’s a symbolic motion that placates a few, but took away all our credibility that we were trying to find a practical solution,” he says.
Higham adds that the practical solution he was looking for involved changing the law to give municipalities greater control over resource development within their boundaries.
“I was consistently protecting the town,” he says. “We tried real hard to make the legal change that would allow towns to have the proper role in resource management that impacted them.”
Hammock still opposed
For his part, Virgil Hammock is repeating what he’s been saying since 2010.
“At the outset, John and I disagreed,” he says.
“Petroworth came in and wanted to have exploration in the community. I was very much against it because I believed it opened us to a different kind of problem, if we let them explore and they discovered something, we would lose control.”
Hammock adds that he also opposed a move to impose strict conditions on testing because, he says, the town would not have had the power to stand up to the company.
“We had the power given to us by the province at the time to say yes or no to exploration, that we had,” he says.
“The idea that it would be OK if it was proven safe or that we could make demands on the oil and gas industry as a community our size, I find ludicrous actually.”
Hammock says that while fracking may create a few short-term jobs, the extraction of shale gas creates environmental and social problems that are simply not worth it.
When a majority of Sackville Councillors voted against John Higham’s motion to allow seismic testing in July 2010, Marc Leger says they set an important precedent for the rest of New Brunswick.
At the time, Leger was enrolled in Mount Allison University’s environmental studies program and was a student journalist researching the fracking industry. He also made a presentation to Council on the dangers of fracking before it voted against seismic testing.
“Sackville turned out to be a real leader in terms of a community that had the guts to say no,” Leger says.
“That was unheard of for New Brunswick to say no to a resource industry and Sackville showed the way in how you could do that, how you could stand up to big companies and how you could stand up to the province,” he adds.
Leger says that while the province could have overridden Council’s decision, it would have been political suicide to do so.
“Petroworth went away, didn’t they, when they were told no, no thank-you, we don’t want your business here,” he says.
“Did it stop development from occurring? Absolutely, it did.”
Merrill Fullerton, who was a Sackville Town Councillor from 2008 to 2012, sent a comment saying that I had fallen for the Virgil Hammock spin on the story and that I had over-simplified the issue. I asked for examples and he replied as follows:
Regarding my comments, the over-simplification is how the article positions the two candidates as being on opposite sides of this issue when in fact they are not. The debate was always around the best methods/tactics to keep fracking out and protecting our community. There is also some crucial information missing from the piece. Let me elaborate:
Nothing in the article is mentioned about the horizontal drilling that could have occurred from outside Sackville but underneath the community without residents of our town knowing because we would have been shut out of any seismic data. To me, the biggest threat was activity outside Sackville’s borders that would have consequences for the people in our community – contaminated wells. But with no benchmark data available to us because we turned down seismic testing, there would have been no way to prove that activity by Petroworth or any other natural resources company was the cause of contamination.
No one around the council table was pushing that we allow fracking. It was whether we should allow seismic testing. Because we had no jurisdiction over the areas outside of Sackville, fracking could have proceeded there regardless of our position. And if it had, Sackville would have been naked.
The motion that we prepared in response to this situation was to allow seismic testing in Sackville but with terms that gave us access to the data, thereby arming us with information the community would need to go after any exploration company that fracked in the area and impacted Sackville’s environment. It is telling that this motion passed but the company didn’t agree to the terms, so it died. Virgil Hammock voted against that motion, which actually put the community at risk. He put his grandstanding above community safety.
Town records show that Merrill Fullerton voted with John Higham against the motion calling for a province-wide ban on fracking during the Council meeting on Dec. 12, 2011:
Moved by Councillor Virgil Hammock and seconded by Councillor Michael Tower that the Town of Sackville urge the Government of New Brunswick to place a total ban within the province on the process known as hydro-fracking for the extraction of natural gas and oil. Aye votes were recorded from Deputy Mayor Bob Berry, Councillors Joyce O’Neil, Michael Tower, Virgil Hammock and Margaret Tusz-King. Nay votes were recorded from Councillors Merrill Fullerton and John Higham. Motion carried.
The Sackville Tribune Post reported:
Merrill Fullerton and John Higham, the only two councillors to oppose the motion, said although they felt a moratorium might be the appropriate resolution for the Sackville area, they didn’t necessarily feel that the town should be restricting other communities from their options. “I don’t think we should be imposing our views on other communities,” said Fullerton. “I don’t believe it (hydrofracking) has a place in our community, but I do believe in local decision-making . . .”