No end in sight for protests against shale gas exploration in New Brunswick

FREDERICTON – The New Brunswick government is pitching the development of a shale gas industry in the province as a potential economic boom and job creator, but opponents are strengthening their resolve to block the idea, right at the exploration stage.

Since early June, there have been protests while SWN Resources conducts the latest series of seismic testing near Elsipogtog, north of Moncton.

Chief Arren Sock of the Elsipogtog First Nation is calling for an immediate moratorium on shale gas exploration in the province and says his people have an obligation to protect the land and water.

“Most New Brunswickers wouldn’t understand the Mi’kmaq culture and they wouldn’t understand the connectiveness of the Mi’kmaq people with the land,” he said. “If they did, they would understand why we are so adamant against shale gas.”

Opponents say the gas wells threaten water supplies, something the industry denies.

The RCMP say there have been 33 arrests since early June as a result of people blocking roads and vehicles. Police are also investigating a number of cases of vandalism.

There are about 10 companies licensed to explore for shale gas in the province but SWN Resources is the only one doing seismic testing right now.

Sock said the government ignored First Nations people when it allowed work to begin.

“The province of New Brunswick entered into exploration licenses without proper duty to consult our people on our territory,” he said.

David Coon, leader of New Brunswick’s Green party, said First Nations in the Maritimes have never ceded territory, so governments have a unique responsibility to consult.

“The treaties are peace and friendship treaties and we are all signatories in a sense to those treaties, and they need to be honoured,” he said.

Coon said Premier David Alward has to get personally involved by visiting the community and taking action.

“He’s got to pull the plug on the licences for exploration … it’s the only honourable way out for him.”

A spokesman for the premier said he was not available to comment Friday, while officials with SWN Resources could not be reached for comment.

Tom Bateman, a political scientist at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, said the provincial government set the stage for opposition by announcing prospects for the industry before ensuring regulations to protect the public and the environment were in place.

“This afforded the anti-shale gas people the chance to step out in front and frame the issue and define the politics of the shale gas development potential in the province,” he said.

A report released in early June said each gas well in New Brunswick would generate about $13 million in economic spinoffs. The report by Deloitte also estimated that each well would create about 21 jobs.

But Bateman said the economic benefits of the industry will only become attractive when the public is assured that the environmental questions have been answered.

In February, the government announced 97 new rules to govern oil and gas industry practices. Under the regulations, exploratory wells will be required to have a double casing to protect surrounding groundwater.

Open pits for wastewater will not be allowed, and oil and gas companies would have to buy $10 million in liability insurance to cover personal injury or damage to property or the environment.

Still, there is a growing number of people — native and non-native — setting up camp along Highway 116 near Elsipogtog to oppose the exploration. People in a camp set up by protesters weren’t willing to comment on Thursday.

Wendall Nicholas of Tobique has been assigned as a peacekeeper and will serve as the point man between police, protesters and the community in an effort to keep people safe during the protests.