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How A Higgs (And Austin) Win Breathed New Life Into The Shale Gas Debate

An anti-shale gas rally in Moncton. Image: Inda Intiar/Huddle

MONCTON – The shale gas debate is heating up again as New Brunswick’s new Progressive Conservative government has indicated plans to lift a ban on fracking in communities that are open to the activity.

And as natural gas production off the coast of Sable Island, N.S., nears its end-of-life in 2020, industry insiders are discussing the future of energy supply for the Maritimes. For now, energy distributors like Enbridge have increasingly turned to other parts of Canada and U.S. shale gas basins to supply gas for their customers in the region.

“We have already made the shift to counter the reduction of production off of Sable Island and that capacity comes into effect this winter,” said Gilles Volpé, the general manager of Enbridge Gas New Brunswick, at a presentation for a conference held by the Maritimes Energy Association in Moncton last week.

Over the next three years, Enbridge plans to bring more gas from Alberta and Ontario to heat homes, schools, hospitals, universities, government offices and other spaces, he said.

There’s plenty of natural gas to supply the 20,000 users in the Maritimes, said Ray Ritcey, the CEO of the Maritimes Energy Association.

Colleen Mitchell, the President of Atlantica Centre for Energy, who moderated the Maritimes Energy Association conference with industry insiders at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, also noted that the region is already connected to an international grid of pipelines.

“The challenge that we have is to move the gas into the markets and depending on times of the year, most notably the coldest days of the year, there are bottlenecks that have to be accommodated and ultimately removed to have that gas flow here freely,” Ritcey said.

But the two organizations are advocating for New Brunswick to build its own natural gas sector.

“We absolutely advocate that New Brunswick should look at developing its own natural resources, which includes natural gas potential,” she said. “There are industrial opportunities, there are jobs, there’s economic development, there’s all of that. We could be a region that produces nothing but we would be bankrupt. And the idea is we use the resources that we have, we create jobs, we create royalties, we create the tax base to afford running the rest of the economy.”

Plus, bringing in gas from other parts of Canada or the U.S. is expensive, says Todd McDonald, the president of Halifax-based energy trader Energy Atlantica. Atlantic Canadians pay much more a year for natural gas than the average cost in the rest of the country, he said.

“The cost is around $250 million to $300 million per year. Over a decade, that’s around $3 billion,” he said. “So you don’t necessarily need to [produce natural gas locally], but it would be a lot cheaper for the industry, for hotels to heat their buildings, or schools, for hospitals, et cetera. It would be significantly cheaper if we had our own. Not to mention royalties and jobs.”

McDonald said the extra money spent on energy bills could also be used to fund schools, hospitals and other infrastructure instead. In the meantime, investment is flowing into other clean sources like wind farms, solar panels and geothermal plants and the transition to a low-carbon economy is happening. But not fast enough, he said.

“Unless we want to do something really crazy like put solar in and all agree up front that we should triple our electricity rates, that’s the only way that’s going to get done. That’s not a realistic approach,” he said.

Lifting the moratorium on shale gas exploration wouldn’t guarantee a commercial case for drilling, Mitchell said. But it’s a step towards creating a conducive environment for investment in the natural gas sector in New Brunswick, she added.

“The important thing is allowing companies to come in and find out the answer to the question: is there a commercial resource that could be potentially developed for domestic use in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia? Until we even know that, this idea of having an industry and a supply industry, that’s a little bit further down the road,” she said.

New Brunswick natural gas producer Corridor Resources is already making plans for new wells if the government decides to follow through with lifting the fracking ban.

In a corporate presentation, the company said with the ban lifted, it would drill five vertical evaluation wells, complete three existing wells, identify “sweet spots,” and drill a second round of up to five horizontal wells. Currently, it has 32 producing wells in the Sussex region and runs a 50-kilometre pipeline, a gathering system made up of 15 kilometres of pipe, and a natural gas processing facility.

Gilles Volpé of Enbridge, Brad Coady of NB Power, Colleen Mitchell of Atlantica Centre for Energy and Todd McDonald of Energy Atlantica in a panel discussion in Moncton. Image: Inda Intiar/Huddle

Environmental Concerns

Anti-shale activists have dusted off their signs, and rallied outside the building where the conference took place. Organizers’ say fracking for shale gas wasn’t the key topic of discussion at the event, but activists were concerned about their advocacy for shale gas and fracking, and about the new provincial government’s stance on the issue.

This wouldn’t be a hot topic had Gallant won a majority or a minority with enough Green Party support. But Higgs won the most seats and has the support of the People’s Alliance. Both parties favour shale gas development on a regional basis if there is demonstrable local support.

So suddenly this already planned conference in Moncton on the future of natural gas supplies took on added significance.

Leading up to the election, now Premier Blaine Higgs said to Huddle that with energy costs expected to go up 30 per cent when the Sable project is dismantled and supply comes from the U.S., a regional approach to shale gas production could work.

“Because it wasn’t supported across the province. Clearly, there was a lot of areas that just didn’t want to pursue it. The area that we want to focus on is the area that actually wants to pursue this – the Sussex region,” he said.

Kenneth Francis of Elsipogtog First Nation said the revival of the shale debate is reminiscent of events in 2013. Elsipogtog is located near Rexton, where clashes between anti-shale protesters and police took place in 2013. That resulted in many arrests and police cars being burned.

There was a huge confrontation that happened in [Route] 134 five years ago. All that was because there was no consultation with Indigenous people. The same thing is happening here again,” he said. “[The Progressive Conservatives] have been running on a campaign promise that they’re going to lift the moratorium. They haven’t done any consultation that they’re going to do that.”

Francis spoke for Kopit Lodge, Elsipogtog’s official consultation body for any resource extraction issues in the community’s traditional territory.

“We still want to make the point to the government that this is Mi’kmaq territory. It’s unceded. Never surrendered. So since we have title to this place, we have absolute right to determine what happens to the land, and if we decide that things should go ahead, we have absolute right to benefit from the land. That’s the point that we’re trying to get the government to understand,” Francis says. “The problem is they don’t even talk to us about anything. And it’s a Supreme Court requirement.”

Francis’ group and other anti-shale organizations like the New Brunswick Anti-Shale Gas Alliance (NBASGA) are also concerned about the environmental impact of fracking, regardless of where it happens in the province. Francis said only if gas can be extracted without damaging the water will his community consider allowing it to occur.

“Water to us is a living source. It doesn’t only live, it gives life,” he said.

NBASGA spokesperson Jim Emberger was in the room with energy industry officials that day. He said they accurately described the problem that natural gas users have, but the environmental impact remains a concern.

“Burning natural gas is better than oil. It’s better than coal. But it’s still not good,” he said. “If you believe the [United Nations], we can’t add any more new carbon than that’s already there. So whether it’s 50 per cent less or 10 per cent less, it’s still more than what’s there now.”

He’s worried investment made into natural gas infrastructure today would be tied up for the next few decades and would take away from investments in cleaner energy sources like wind and solar power.

“They’ll say, ‘oh we got to use it, we got the infrastructure now.’ So the point that our organization is trying to make is to stop it before it starts,” he said. 

For Leslie Tse of Moncton, who brought her young daughter to the rally, it’s the future impact on the earth and climate that’s worrisome.

“I have young children and what legacy are we leaving them if we allow these things to continue. If we don’t put our foot down finally, and really make a concerted effort…and actually say that environmentally, the world is not getting better. We have to take a hard look at our lifestyles, our sources of energy and make the change for better,” she said.

With files from Mark Leger and The Canadian Press