APTN photo of Elsipogtog fracking standoff in New Brunswick.

9 Ways to Fight Fracking

Resistance strategies from the frontline standoff in New Brunswick.

Imagine going to your favourite bar year after year and ordering beer on tap. Then, one day, the tap runs dry. All that’s left are the drops that have fallen on the bar floor after decades of beer-thirsty customers. The only way to get more beer is to squeeze droplets out of the rug and into your mug.

Imagine going to your favourite bar year after year and ordering beer on tap. Then, one day, the tap runs dry. All that’s left are the drops that have fallen on the bar floor after decades of beer-thirsty customers. The only way to get more beer is to squeeze droplets out of the rug and into your mug.

As the former climate and energy coordinator with the Conservation Council of New Brunswick (CCNB), Raphael Shay often used this analogy to explain how the oil and gas industry feeds our addiction to fossil fuels. The growing scarcity of conventional oil and gas has forced the industry to mine the stains in the rug – dirty, difficult-to-extract resources like tar sands bitumen and shale gas.

Shale gas mining by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, requires brute force and causes substantial problems that are hard to measure. Shale gas, which is mostly methane, is imprisoned in deep sedimentary rock. For each frack, water mixed with sand and a toxic brew of chemicals is pumped downward and then horizontally into an L-shaped borehole at a high enough pressure to fracture the rock, allowing the trapped methane to escape and be drawn to the surface. The amount of water used to frack a single well is equivalent to seven Olympic-sized swimming pools. More than two-thirds of it stays down, but what comes up after the pressure is released is untreatable toxic waste. There have been more than 1,000 allegations in the US of ground or surface water contamination caused by escaped fracking fluid, either above or below ground.

American endocrinologist Theo Colborn says 75 per cent of the chemicals used in fracking disrupt sensory organs and respiratory gastrointestinal system. In September, Colborn and her colleagues at the Colorado-based Endocrine Disruption Exchange published a paper in Human and Ecological Risk Assessment arguing that air pollution in areas where residents and gas wells coexist is also a source of major concern. Other concerns include damage to property values, roads and infrastructure, tourism and agricultural industries, as well as increased noise pollution, health care costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

More fracking to come

Jessica Ernst, the environmental scientist who is currently suing oil giant Encana because she alleges that fracking operations contaminated her water well in Rosebud, Alberta, warns that the number of water contamination cases in Canada is rising. Fracking is currently taking place in rural British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick. Some form of moratorium has been imposed in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and parts of Québec. According to the 2012 Report of the Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development, Canada will see a 50-per-cent increase in unconventional gas production over the next 20 years.

New Brunswick has become a cauldron of public pushback against fracking operations. Mark D’Arcy of the Fredericton chapter of the Council of Canadians estimates that there could be as many as 60,000 active wells in the licensed area held by SWN Resources Canada, a subsidiary of Texas-based Southwestern Energy Company. In 2010, the company pledged to spend almost $47-million to explore for the commercial viability of shale gas on more than a million hectares of land stretching the entire width of the province. Furious that the provincial government had not engaged them prior to issuing exploratory licenses to this and other companies, grandmothers, taxi drivers, hairdressers, university professors and New Brunswickers from all walks of life – hailing from Indigenous, Acadian and Anglophone communities alike – have reorganized their lives and become activists to halt the development of shale gas mining in the province.

The conflicts in New Brunswick reflect what’s happening in communities across Canada and beyond our borders. Cash-strapped governments are promoting economic growth and responsible development, while activists are calling for a permanent halt to exploration for the sake of ecosystem vitality and human safety. But this struggle is not just about shale gas, which is but a symptom of a much larger problem. Many rural New Brunswickers initially heard about this invasion of their lands not from the officials they elected to represent their interests, but from the oil and gas industry.

We can no longer afford to be complacent.

According to Henry David Thoreau, complacency is one of democracy’s greatest weaknesses. We can no longer afford to be complacent. The mounting resistance in New Brunswick, which has required unflinching determination and countless hours of unpaid work, shows that we can reclaim a stake in our faltering democracy. These are some of the tools and strategies we’ve used to push back against seismic testing operations and exploratory thumper trucks.

#1: Design a Counter Campaign

In New Brunswick, there are currently nine oil and gas companies holding shale gas exploration licenses. Starting in 2010, two companies, Corridor Resources and SWN Resources Canada, started hosting town hall meetings to discuss their plans with residents. It was news to us.

To ensure people understood what was happening, members of existing groups like the Taymouth Community Association and Sackville’s Tantramar Alliance Against Hydrofracking organized their own meetings to raise awareness about shale gas mining. Stephanie Merrill of CCNB Action spent the better part of two years travelling across the province giving presentations and telling mainstream media about the risks and impacts of fracking. Others like Jim emberger and Patricia leger were inspired to follow her example. Merrill was also instrumental in distributing the film Gasland – Josh Fox’s 2010 documentary about the devastation caused by the US fracking industry – in New Brunswick.

This evolving public education campaign is now the mainstay of the newly created New Brunswick Anti-Shale Gas Alliance (NBASGA), established in fall 2013.

#2: Build a Resistance Network

To protest closed-door meetings about shale gas mining organized by David Alward’s provincial government in June 2011. a range of NB-based NGOs established a province-wide network to stop development. The New Brunswick Environmental Network (NBEN) now provides a forum for more than two dozen community associations to talk strategy during monthly teleconferences. Each member of the NBEN shale gas caucus has one representative, and a new chair is elected every six months. Causus proposals are vetted by members of each community association, which are free to choose strategies to partake in and support.

This headless organizational system (which also includes members of the NBASGA) makes it difficult for government or industry to target specific protesters or resistance groups. But as we shall see below, resistors can still become targets.

It stands to reason that the more people and diversity of groups we can represent, the more powerful and credible we become. Many allies have either passed resolutions advocating a moratorium or become active in the anti-shale campaign: the New Brunswick chapter of the National Farmers Union; New Brunswick Nurses Union; New Brunswick College of Family Physicians; Association francophone des municipalités du Nouveau Brunswick; Maritime Conference of the United Church of Canada; the medical doctors of both the George Dumont Hospital and the Moncton Hospital; The Federation of Rural New Brunswickers; New Brunswick Lung Association; Wolastoqiyik First Nations Chiefs and Band Councils of New Brunswick; the Maliseet Grand Council; the New Brunswick division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees; Fredericton District Labour Council; Unifor; and more.

The collaboration of New Brunswick’s Aboriginal Peoples deserves particular attention. Many First Nations communities have asked for help to ensure their treaty rights are protected. Harper’s gutting of environmental protection laws is well known, but few Canadians know about the Alward government’s behaviour. In 2011, it decreed that any wooded wetland that doesn’t appear on provincial maps was not a wetland. In 2012, Alward began neglecting a watercourse classification regulation meant to establish legally binding quality standards for lakes, rivers and streams. What little protection we have left stems from treaties. In order for Aboriginals to be guaranteed the right to hunt, fish and gather in perpetuity, the air, water and habitat required to sustain the plants and animals that feed them need to be protected from industrial development.

#3. Call in Reinforcements

There is no doubt that the election of the Parti Québécois government helped Québec citizens get a fracking moratorium in 2013. A YouTube video called “Gaz de schiste: Wo!” featuring well-known Québec artists also generated momentum.

Unaware of New Brunswick celebrities interested in taking on a similar video project, the NBEN shale gas caucus sought celebrities of another kind to enlighten locals: smart, relatively unknown people who had experienced fracking. The first, in 2011, was Calvin Tillman. The former mayor of Dish, Texas, felt compelled to move his family after his children developed severe nosebleeds, ostensibly caused by air pollutants from shale gas wells. According to a 2013 paper in the American Journal of Nursing by Ruth McDermott-Levy and colleagues, nosebleeds among children are common in areas subjected to shale gas development.

Other speakers brought to counter government and industry ideology included Jessica Ernst, shale gas economics lecturer Deborah Rogers and Anthony Ingraeffea, a Cornell University professor with 30 years of experience in hydrofracking.

Tillman’s take-home message was that folks need to be just as concerned about air pollution as water pollution. Ingraeffea warned about the many myths industry will peddle to try and convince opponents. Rogers said the only way to win this fight is by poking holes in economic arguments.

#4. Fine-Tune Your Message

Community associations have sold thousands of signs and T-shirts depicting an anti-shale gas message for a buck or two above cost, providing an important means of fundraising. These messages also help build solidarity. Earlier this fall, I drove to a NBASGA meeting in St. Ignace along Highway 11, where SWN Resources Canada had set up the final stages of its seismic testing operations for the season. Strewn alongside the highway for many kilometres were SWN’s geophones, detectors that record echoes of sounds made on the Earth’s surface by thumper trucks. Paradoxically, there was a “No shale gas” sign in almost every driveway!

Messages on signs and T-shirts have also evolved over the past three years to become more positive and practical. The Fredericton chapter of the Council of Canadians recently issued a challenge on bright yellow signs and T-shirts that read “Jobs: You do the math.” These show that the number of jobs created for every million-dollar investment in clean energy production is up to seven times greater than those created by the same investment in the oil and gas industry.

The past three years have witnessed two public rallies in Moncton and five in Fredericton. Thousands of people have walked the streets carrying signs or banners, chanting lyrics and beating drums. We are now able to pull off demonstrations in a matter of days. (The key is to inform local police of your route and request their presence during the march, especially to stop or divert traffic at busy intersections.)

In November 2013, instead of marching to the Legislative Assembly, we started with a symbolic gesture of “turning our backs” to the building and then marching to a traditional longhouse built by six Maliseet and two Mi’kmaq communities. Using a pick-up truck bed as our stage and a borrowed microphone and speaker system, representatives from the Aboriginal, Acadian and Anglophone communities each addressed the demonstrators. Even though marches and rallies have done little to deter the Alward government’s hard line on the shale gas file, they have proven indispensable to keeping spirits high and building solidarity during a long and difficult campaign. They have also made it clear to Alward and SWN that New Brunswickers will not be excluded from these decisions.

#5. Create Conversation-Starters

A petition containing 20,000 signatures was delivered to the Legislative Assembly in 2011 asking the government for a ban. A letter-writing campaign was designed so that citizens could easily send all 55 Members of the Legislative Assembly a note denouncing shale gas development. A satirical newspaper called the Daily Glove Puppet has brought a sharp tongue to the discussion. Because a relatively high percentage of New Brunswickers have low literacy (53 per cent), more emphasis is now being placed on YouTube videos and skits such as Dame Rita’s “I am ‘ear’ for you.”

Fredericton’s Council of Canadians members have designed and used “Frack-fry” costumes to demonstrate the increased risks of contamination in food grown in soil where shale gas mining occurs. The decorated appliance-sized cardboard boxes list many common ingredients found in fracking fluids on the back and are easy to make and wear. They’re a great way to draw attention in communities less familiar with shale gas.

In December 2013, Council members constructed a pillory and used it to depict how the courts have put citizens in stocks, unable to live in a clean and healthy environment.

#6. Go to Court with Caution

Hampton Water First, a member of the NBEN shale gas caucus, is currently trying to raise $100,000 to take the government to court on the basis that shale gas mining is detrimental to people’s health.

This issue has already been before the courts on four different occasions in late 2013. On October 3, SWN Resources Canada initially succeeded in getting a Moncton judge to grant an injunction against activists in Kings County who had prevented its thumper trucks from leaving a compound located off Highway 134. Although SWN failed to have that injunction extended, it did sue 13 activists for $650,000 in damages it claimed to have incurred because of summertime protests in Kent County. Despite the lack of anti-SLAPP legislation in New Brunswick, few anticipated these particular protesters would be targeted. (The lesson: lobby for your province to introduce anti-SLAPP protection if none is available.)

On November 15, Elsipogtog First Nation asked a Fredericton judge for an injunction against the Alward government for not adhering to its duty to consult them prior to issuing exploratory licenses. The judge denied their request. (Note that in other jurisdictions, the courts have honoured similar requests – an Inuit group in Nunavut contested seismic testing in Lancaster Sound in 2010, and the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation in Ontario prohibited exploration by Platinex Inc. in 2006.)

When SWN presented its case before the same judge who denied Elispogtog’s motion on November 22, the company’s request that no person be allowed within 20 meters of the side of the road or 250 meters from the front or back of its thumper trucks was granted. SWN reappeared in court on December 2 asking for an extension to its previous injunction, which was also granted.

From our experience, the courts have so far proven unsatisfactory and prohibitively expensive, and they are structured to give preference to large businesses. The lesson learned is to approach the bench with irrefutable evidence.

#7. Document the Conflict

Irving Oil, a family-owned company worth billions, controls every English-language daily in New Brunswick and all the community weeklies except two. Naturally, this has led to a very biased approach to news coverage of shale gas development. It has been difficult to get a pro-industry conglomerate to give equal treatment to both sides of this controversy. It calls to mind what Mount Allison professor Erin Steuter said when the Liberals under Shawn Graham tried selling NB Power to Québec: “The papers are presenting the view that what’s good for the Irving company is good for the province.”

Even the CBC has fallen into disfavour among activists for often undermining the NBASGA’s message and for continuously underreporting the number of people participating in marches and rallies.

During the summer and fall of 2013, an independent journalist affiliated with the Halifax Media Co-op named Miles Howe lived among activists staging a blockade in Kent County. Whereas other journalists had to drive up to wherever the blockades were being set up, which was a moving target in and of itself, Howe was able to provide up-to-the minute accounts of everything that was happening. Much to his dismay and surprise, he was arrested three times for doing his job.

Many activists used their digital devices to capture videos of tense moments between the RCMP and activists. Blogger Charles LeBlanc was present with his camera phone, recording every aspect of how the arrests on Highway 126 unfolded on June 14, 2013. LeBlanc’s short video of friends and allies being physically manhandled by the RCMP was heart-wrenching and impossible to capture in print media. Without his perspective, we wouldn’t know the ferocity with which the Alward government was prepared to quash any form of resistance to shale gas exploration.

#8. Reclaim Power

New Brunswickers are not used to being arrested for blocking thumper trucks in the middle of a public highway. Acts of civil disobedience require training. Philippe Duhamel, a non-violent activist and educator for social change from Québec City, delivered a weeklong training session on civil disobedience in Elsipogtog last fall. Duhamel talked about the importance of preplanning acts of disobedience, having a contingency plan and always keeping a watchful eye for agents provocateurs, such as those alleged to have torched six RCMP vehicles in Rexton on October 17, 2013.

Inverness County in Nova Scotia is believed to be the first community in Canada to pass a bylaw prohibiting fracking within community boundaries (read about it in “First Places“). Two years in the making, the bylaw came about because of residents’ fears about the fracking of an exploratory well drilled by Petroworth Resources next to Lake Ainslie.

Ben Price of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund doesn’t think Inverness has gone far enough. “Community rights will not be won by banning fracking, but by empowering every community to govern corporate behavior within their jurisdiction, including but certainly not limited by the prohibition of rights-violating fracking,” he says. “Corporate privileges must be subordinated to the right of communities to protect their health, safety and welfare by legislating against the local siting of factory farms, GMOs, toxic landfills, sewage-sludge dumping, huge water withdrawals, long-wall and mountain top removal ‘mining’ – you name it.”

#9. Get Out the Vote

The Alward government has consistently maintained that it was given a majority mandate to pursue shale gas development in the 2010 provincial elections. We disagree, as there was no mention of shale gas or hydraulic fracturing in his party’s election platform. Many New Brunswickers are now focused on ousting Alward from office on September 22, 2014. The true challenge will be to elect a trustworthy coalition government to repair the cumulative impact of decades of majority governments that have led to shale gas exploration and mining operations.

Jean Louis Deveau is an anti-shale-gas activist based in New Brunswick.