Author: Stewart Fast
Kent County is a rural area in New Brunswick featuring coastal and inland villages and a unique mix of three cultures (Elsipogtog, Acadian, Anglophone). Unemployment is high (16.6%) and so is illiteracy (40% of adults do not have a high school diploma) (Statistics Canada, 2011a, 2011b). Median incomes are low ($24,387). There is no history of oil and gas production in the area and less than 1.5% of the population works in mining. Other natural resource sectors – forestry and fishing – are more prominent.
There is a historical context of expropriation both recent (Kouchibigouac National Park in the 1950s) and further back (Acadian expulsion in 1700s) that makes residents skeptical and cautious of shale gas exploration activities. One-tenth of the Kent County population is Indigenous. The Mi’gmaq never ceded territory but rather signed a “Peace and Friendship Treaty” with the British Crown, with responsibilities on either side for protection (INAC, undated). The symbolic, strategic and legal importance of this fact to resisting fracking development is important not only to the Elsipogtog community, but also to other non-Indigenous voices in Kent County, who forged new relationships during the blockades and protests of 2013. Violent clashes with RCMP in October 2013 to evict Mi’gmaq protestors feature strongly in Kent County resident descriptions of fracking issues. Politically, the region tends to vote Liberal, and that is the governing party that instituted a moratorium on fracking. Another unique feature of Kent County is that two-thirds of residents live outside of incorporated municipalities, and have no elected municipal representation.
Hydraulic fracturing for shale gas in New Brunswick is in early phases compared to other Canadian provinces, such as British Columbia or Alberta. As part of attempts to expand the industry and participate in the continental growth of the shale gas industry, the New Brunswick government awarded Texas-based SWN Energy Co. licences to search one-fifth of the province for shale gas potential in 2010, including large parts of Kent County (Government of New Brunswick, 2010). These exploration activities were licensed with minimal oversight (as is traditional in mining regulation – with the expectation that production activities will be regulated more extensively).
Seismic testing took longer than expected because there were public protests. It was not until mid-2014 that SWN began the process to drill four exploratory wells. That process included public notification through newspaper notices and online posting of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) documents (Stantec, 2014). After a new provincial government was elected in October 2014 and carried out its promise to place a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in December 2014, SWN stopped its activities. A government-appointed commission held hearings across the province throughout 2015 to find out more about the root issues underlying public concern.
The commission issued its report in early 2016 (New Brunswick Commission on Hydraulic Fracturing, 2016) and, in May 2016, the government extended the moratorium indefinitely (Government of New Brunswick, 2016). There is a small-scale shale gas industry in the south of the province featuring 40 previously fracked wells. Natural gas distribution and consumption is centred in the southern part of the province and not in Kent County. There is some provincial infrastructure in place for a large scale export sector, notably a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal in St. John.