A remote corner of the municipal district of West Hants has been rezoned so its American owner, Halliburton Partners Canada, can manufacture “perforation equipment” used in offshore oil and gas exploration.
Since February, Halliburton — the largest provider of “fracking” services in the world — has been storing explosives used in the oil and gas exploration industry at the site of a former barite mine several kilometres up a dirt road off highway 215 near Walton on the Hants Shore of the Bay of Fundy.
The explosives are trucked in from Texas and their transportation is regulated by Transport Canada. The explosives are used to create small holes in the drill pipe so fluid under high pressure can seep out and crack rock to allow oil and gas to flow during the drilling of wells, like those underway off Newfoundland. Other uses of the explosives involve the decommissioning, plugging, and abandonment of natural gas wells offshore Sable Island.
What the rezoning means for the future remains anybody’s guess. Thursday’s proceeding in front of the Utility and Review Board took less than 20 minutes, because members of the West Hants Municipal Council, whose rejection of the same rezoning application by a 5-2 vote last July, chose not to fight Halliburton’s appeal of their decision. Halliburton’s Senior District Manager (Wireline & Perforating) Kevin Harive attended the hearing but obstinately refused to answer any questions from this reporter about the company’s plans.
Halliburton Partners Canada is part of the Houston-based multinational energy giant. Halliburton recently laid off thousands of people because of a glut of shale gas in the US.
The Canadian division applied to rezone its property at 471 Dresser Minerals Road, Pembroke from “General Resource” to “Resource Industrial” so Halliburton can begin manufacturing and assembling perforation equipment. According to lawyer Robert Grant, who represented Halliburton before the Utility and Review Board, no property owners live within 500 meters of the site, which is also buffered by berms created by tailings from the previous barite mine. Grant called the site “remote” and said the rezoning request was consistent with the West Hants Municipal Planning Strategy. He claimed the planning staff had done a thorough analysis before recommending the zoning change to council. Therefore, he argued, the Utility and Review Board vice-chair Roland Deveau should allow it. He did.
Peter Rogers was the lawyer hired by the Municipality of West Hants to appear on its behalf. Rogers indicated that he had advised councillors they could not make a strong argument for the Halliburton development being inconsistent with the Municipal Planning Strategy. He said (and Roland Deveau agreed) in the event of a dispute, the Review Board upholds the Planning Strategy.
“Council made a decision it did not want to waste the public’s money and the Board’s time and be an obstruction to the developer if their position was unsustainable,” said Rogers.
Rupert Jannasch is the councillor for the district where first the storage facility for the explosives appeared and now a manufacturing and assembly operation for the oil patch has been approved. He was also one of the five councillors who voted against the rezoning application last July. Jannasch admits he’s “frustrated” that the Municipal Planning Strategy has the ability to tie the hands of councillors when a project with potentially far-reaching consequences like Halliburton’s lands on their doorstep. He’s encouraged the West Hants Planning Strategy is now being reviewed with an eye to finding a way to give politicians more clout over what’s happening in their own backyards.
“People sometimes ask me, ‘why are you opposed to a development that will include six fulltime jobs?’”, Jannasch says. “And I’ve replied, ‘it’s because the company has also stated publicly the manufacturing would only take place two to three days a year.’ I don’t know what to believe. I don’t have much information on the scale of the manufacturing the company plans to do today — and that could change in the future. I don’t know what they have told the fire departments nor what information they have given the planners but we know very little. Once the land has been rezoned, the owners can do anything they want. I don’t think it was a coincidence Halliburton chose this jurisdiction to set up shop.”
There are no provincial regulations Halliburton needs to consider — just the federal level for transportation in this country and the local level for buying land that is open for business, including one that comes with its own hazards. Interestingly, another Municipal Planning Strategy tied the hands of councillors in Halifax Regional Municipality from blocking the development of a high-rise hotel in Dartmouth over the objections of citizens. While Jannasch wonders if planners and Planning Strategies have too much control over what kind of development is appropriate, he also acknowledges the dangers of politicians being pressured by developers if councillors have the only say.
Peter Rogers suggested the West Hants Council’s strongest argument for wanting to turn down the manufacturing of oil patch equipment was concern about the adequacy of fire and other services in the event of an accident or emergency. But Rogers said the volunteer fire chief of the Walton Fire Department five minutes down the road had been provided information by the company that alleviated his initial concerns.
The Halifax Examiner reached Walton volunteer fire chief Danny Patterson by phone. He’s been a firefighter and Chief more than 20 years. Patterson confirmed that based on the information Halliburton gave him, he didn’t expect “anything out-of-the-ordinary.” He says he is satisfied the explosives at the site are being carefully and properly stored.
But asked what he knew about the size or scale of the manufacturing operations planned by Halliburton, Patterson said he didn’t know, because that hadn’t been discussed. He was also unable to say what type of building will be constructed, or how often trucks carrying steel pipes or explosives through highways in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia would be arriving at the Halliburton site off the two-lane route 215.
By the time Halliburton tells locals what’s going on — if it even chooses to do so — it will already be too late. As of Thursday morning, the horse is out of the barn.