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HALIFAX—After years of learning about climate change and oil and gas development in other parts of the world, Michael Jensen was upset, but not surprised, to learn that natural gas exploration may be coming to his backyard.
"It's indicative of a much larger pattern of environmental destruction," says Jensen. "I'm deeply worried about the climate."
In December, the Nova Scotia Department of Energy issued a call for exploration proposals for three blocks of land along the province's North Shore, from the New Brunswick border to Merigomish. Jensen's house and small market garden fall within the "Scotsburn Block." He and hundreds of others from across Nova Scotia don't trust the government’s assurance that they will “recognize the importance of the environment when considering shale gas operations,” and many have decided to fight back.
Natural gas exploration and extraction can include drilling, seismic testing and hydraulic fracturing or "fracking." Fracking involves pumping water, chemicals and sand underground at high pressure in order to fracture the shale and release the gas. Over the past several months, the practice has gained notoriety with the release of the Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland and several high-profile articles in The New York Times, which documented the production of massive amounts of toxic waste-water, the contamination of wells and the up-swell of human health complaints.
The impacts of exploration and development—from clear-cutting, to increased traffic, to water and air pollution—have many Nova Scotians concerned, but it's fracking in particular that has struck a nerve.
Tatamagouche is on the province’s North Shore and falls within the area slated for exploration. Within a week of a public screening of the movie Gasland in February, a community meeting at the Tatamagouche Centre drew 70 people, says Jensen. A slew of activity has followed: letter-writing nights; a petition; a protest at the office of the Minister of Energy, Charlie Parker; and a Halifax rally to ban fracking that drew over 100 people from across the province.
Beth Norrad would have liked to travel from her home in Penobsquis, New Brunswick to attend the rally, but she and her neighbours are tied up in a legal battle with Potash Corp, the world's leading potash producer and owner of 25 per cent of the gas wells in New Brunswick.
“We’re all broke,” she says. “A trip to Halifax just isn’t in the cards.”
Norrad has 40 gas wells within a few kilometers of her home. When asked how this has affected her quality of life, she responds,"it's ruined it."
Norrad grew up in New Brunswick but moved to Toronto, working there for 25 years. She moved to Penobsquis in 2007, seeking a higher quality of life, “totally ignorant” of the development that was underway.
Today, she would do anything to leave—except she can’t sell her house.
"The homes are worthless," she says."There's no farms left here anymore. You need water to farm."
The natural gas in the area was discovered by Potash Corp in 1999, when the company was using seismic testing to find the large body of water that was draining into their potash mine—also a few kilometers from Norrad's home. Instead, the company found gas. The first few wells went dry in 1999. The company drilled more gas wells, and did more seismic testing.
"One home right after another [lost their water] until 60 homes lost their wells," says Norrad. Residents believe the blasting created cracks in the ground that allowed the water that fed their wells to flow into the mine. "For the next six years we went off water tanks."
The town now has a municipal water supply, but Norrad believes it was put in place for Potash Corp, rather than for the 60 homes without running water. Sixty cisterns would costs $600,000, says Norrad. "But you can't run a mine and gas wells on a cistern. So the federal and provincial governments, in collusion with industry, spent $10,000,000 on a water line to provide industry with water."
Norrad says her community has been destroyed. "We basically live in an industrial park. An industrial park with no rules."
"They lie," she says. "They'll tell you anything to get gas wells on your property."
"What we have [in Cape Breton] is a company that has no real interest in what the community thinks, and a Department of Energy that cares even less," says Geoffrey May from his home in Margaree, Cape Breton, overlooking the Margaree River. May works at the local campground and has lived in the area for 35 years. He says fishing and tourism are two major sources of employment in the area, and both are under threat from oil and shale gas exploration and drilling.
PetroWorth Resources Inc. has secured the exploration and development rights to 383,000 acres of land in Cape Breton. Nova Scotia's largest lake, Lake Ainslie, is in the middle of the block of land, which is connected to the Margaree River, known for its natural beauty and salmon pools. The "Margaree-Lake Ainslie Heritage River" is a designated protected area in Nova Scotia.
"They're proposing drilling through the water table right next to Lake Ainslie," says May. "This is a poster child for inappropriate development."
“The province has received a number of letters from Nova Scotians about fracking, most of which concern protection of water,” noted an April 4 press release from the departments of Energy and Environment. As a result, it was announced that “The province will review environmental issues associated with hydraulic fracturing.”
But for May, even a ban on fracking does not go far enough. "I want to see the leases [for oil and gas exploration] withdrawn."
He says drilling for more oil and gas is not the answer to Canada's rising energy needs. "In Canada we're currently wasting half the energy we produce," says May. "What we need to increase is our conservation, not our energy supply."
"Shale gas is not a transitional fuel," he says. "It's the fossil fuel industry's latest suicide mission."
Elizabeth Marshall agrees. "Destroying water is like destroying life. For what? A few dollars? For someone else to get rich? It's insane. Once you destroy the environmental infrastructure, you destroy the community."
Marshall is Mi'kmaq, and says her people's connection to the land is not for sale.
"The big oil companies are driven by profit. How many will lay down our lives for a dollar or 10 dollars?" asks Marshall. "But where I come from, people like me, we're wiling to give up our lives for something that's sacred to us. That's the difference between a multinational company and my community. For us, it's a matter of life and death. For them, it's a matter of profit."
Marshall says Petroworth better be ready for a fight. "We know we have title and sovereignty. We'll do what we can to exercise it," she says. "It's not a hobby. It's all connected to our life...When I'm long gone, my children and grandchildren will be continuing this struggle and hope."
“Where do we go once our water is destroyed?” she asks. “We have to protect it with everything we have.”
This article was originally published by the Halifax Media Co-op.
Hillary Lindsay is Coordinator of the Halifax Media Co-op and Editor with the Dominion Newspaper.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.