Reaction was swift and predictable to Premier Blaine Higgs’ announcement that his minority government is lifting the moratorium on fracking to allow shale gas development to resume in the Sussex region, with business leaders voicing support and Indigenous leaders saying the government had once again failed to properly consult them before making a decision on the controversial issue.
Premier Blaine Higgs confirmed on Tuesday that his cabinet approved regulatory changes last month to permit the method of extracting hydrocarbons to resume in the Sussex area. The process known as fracking involves pumping water and chemicals deep underground at high pressure to fracture layers of shale and release pockets of gas.
The chiefs of the nine Mi’kmaq communities in the province, represented by Mi’gmawe’l Tplu’taqnn Inc., said they were surprised by the Premier’s decision. Chief David Peter-Paul of Pabineau First Nation, one of the communities represented, told Huddle the Premier needs to step up communication with the First Nations people.
“This is Mi’kmaq territory where it’s being proposed around the Sussex region,” he said. “We still hunt, we still fish, we still trap, we still gather resources across that territory. We still exercise our aboriginal and our treaty rights in that area, in particular, Fort Folly First Nation.”
“The immediate thing we would like to see is that the Premier comes and approach the First Nations. I don’t know if there’s a way to fix what’s been done so far, [but] we always look for ways and means to be able to correct issues that could impair and impact relationships we have in this province. We always have that door open.”
Peter-Paul said the Premier took the wrong approach when it comes to consulting with First Nations people. He said the government could face protests similar to the ones in 2013 in Rexton when a total of 40 people were arrested and six police vehicles were burned.
“You don’t begin to consult once the project is ready to go or when it’s in the final stages or is prepared to begin test drilling. That’s not the point at which the duty to consult actually occurs,” he said.
“It occurs whenever anything is being contemplated and could potentially…impact and impair aboriginal treaty rights. He’s missed that clear message that comes from the court, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the New Brunswick hydraulic fracturing commission and from the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People.”
A 2016 final report of a commission on the shale gas issue had urged the province to rebuild its relationship with Indigenous peoples and to maintain the moratorium introduced in 2014 by the Liberals.
But lifting the moratorium was a commitment Higgs’ minority government made in its throne speech earlier this year and is in line with his party’s past support of the process.
Corridor Resources currently has 32 producing wells in the Sussex area and operates a 50-kilometre pipeline and a natural gas processing facility. The company previously said that if the moratorium is lifted, it would drill five vertical evaluation wells, complete three existing wells, identify “sweet spots” and drill the second round of up to five horizontal wells.
The Chamber of Commerce in Sussex remains neutral on the issue, says president Paul Bedford, but the business group supports growth and development in the region.
“We won’t take a stance either way,” he told Huddle in an interview. “But in having stated that, the chamber’s fully behind any growth and development in the province that’s going to benefit our people. So, there’s a lot of jobs to be had. If we can support our members in whatever way they are, then that’s what we will do.”
Bedford, the co-owner of QC Pumps, which sells equipment used in the oil and gas sector, says he’s “150 per cent” behind the development of the shale gas industry.
“I think it’s great news. The business, the jobs, the trickle down jobs, the direct jobs, indirect jobs, this is tremendous for this area,” said Bedford. “I’ve been involved with this industry close to 15 years. It’s safe, it’s a viable industry, I would love to make it happen here in my home province.”
He’s not surprised by the move, saying that lifting the moratorium was something Higgs had said was his goal. But he hopes the government will be more upfront in the future.
“I’m hoping on the government’s side that they do this properly, that they do their full consultations, and they do it right. Don’t hold back behind privacy curtains, make it happen, but make it happen correctly,” he said. “Once that’s done, I hope to see investors come into the area to support Corridor and then hopefully when the iron hits the ground, they utilize local people and businesses ready and willing to serve them.”
Colleen Mitchell, president of the Atlantica Centre for Energy, says the decision is great news for the region because it secures a local supply of gas that was lost when the Sable Offshore Energy Project shut down earlier this year.
“This is an opportunity for local gas to supply local demands,” said Mitchell. “The traditional supply of natural gas for the Maritime provinces and New England states was offshore Nova Scotia. So all of the natural gas being consumed in this region is imported from other regions in Canada or from the United States.
Mitchell says it’s more expensive to import the gas used by homes and businesses because of the tolls paid along the way to ship it here.
“The opportunity to develop our own resources to supply our own demand is a very positive thing, not just economically, but also from an energy security and energy supply and price stability standpoint.”
With files from Mark Leger and The Canadian Press