Gas Storage Plan vs. Indigenous Rights in Nova Scotia
The Mi’kmaq, First Nations people who live in communities across what is now known as the provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Québec, are facing threats to their lands and water due to plans in Nova Scotia proposed by AltaGas. The Calgary, Canada-based corporation has plans to expand storage and shipping of fracked gas in a massive $130 million project that would create underground salt caverns, as well as an extensive LNG export facility.
This debate pegs the oil and gas industry against the Mi’kmaq people who have lived and fished along the Shubenacadie River for 13,000 years. The river is a centerpiece of life for the Mi’kmaq Sipekne’katik First Nation. They are challenging the project, asserting that this industrial activity is directly in violation of the federal Fisheries Act, exposing fish in the mixing zone to elevated salinity levels that are not safe for marine and estuarine organisms (see Figure 1, below). Furthermore, Mi’kmaq residents are still awaiting official “deep” consultation with the government of Nova Scotia where their opinions about the project can be heard, based on their treaty rights to the river for ceremonial and fishing purposes.
UPDATE! October 22, 2021: The Alton Natural Gas Storage Project in Nova Scotia was cancelled after years of opposition. In a newsletter, AltaGas stated:
“…The project has received mixed support, challenges and experienced delay. In addition, in 2018, AltaGas divested its interest in the local natural gas utility as the company repositioned its focus on two core areas of business, midstream and energy export opportunities off the West Coast of North America and natural gas utilities located in the U.S.
With the sale of the Nova Scotia utility, the repositioning of the business and the challenging nature of the storage project economics, AltaGas has decided not to continue with the development of Alton and to move forward with decommissioning the project.
In the coming weeks and months, we will be discussing next steps related to decommissioning the project with regulators at the provincial and federal governments, the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia and other key stakeholders.
As we begin the process to decommission Alton, we will continue working to minimize our environmental impact as we remain committed to the health of the Shubenacadie River estuary.
We will provide information updates to local stakeholders on the decommissioning process on the project’s website, www.altonnaturalgasstorage.ca“
UPDATE! July 1, 2021: The future of the construction of the Goldboro LNG terminal, so passionately opposed by the traditional Mi’kmaq, is looking less and less likely to be completed. The project did not attract investors by a June 30th deadline. In addition, Pieridae Energy has been looking for a $1 billion subsidy from the Canadian government, which has been completely ignored.
UPDATE, January 1, 2022: This article by Francis Campbell describes a detailed decommissioning plan by Alton Gas—one that does not include repurposing of the companies’ property. “The Mi’kmaq community that has opposed the project for years would like to see the land at the river site transferred to them and residents near the cavern site would like to see that land used for something along the lines of a green energy project that would benefit the community.”
Figure 1: Respect Water, Respect Life – Stop Alton Gas. This infographic details how brine dumping into the Shubenacadie River violates Mi’kmaq Treaty Rights and Canadian environmental laws and regulations. Source: @StopAltonGas
Map 1: Overview of Nova Scotia and focus areas of conflict
This interactive map shows general sites of controversy in the Mi’kmaq people’s struggle against AltaGas, including the location of the general location of controversy, the Maritimes and Northeast gas pipelines serving the area, and the location of a proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal from which gas would be shipped internationally.
View the map “Details” tab below in the top right corner to learn more and access the data, or click on the map to explore the dynamic version of this data. Data sources are also listed at the end of this article.
From Pennsylvania to the Canadian Maritimes
The Atlantic Bridge Pipeline system consists of the Algonquin Pipeline (New Jersey to Massachusetts, with fracked gas coming from Pennsylvania) and the Maritimes and Northeast pipeline system (Massachusetts to Nova Scotia). It is fed by a steady supply of unconventionally fracked gas from Pennsylvania. The Atlantic Bridge system has been mired in controversy for years, with the Federal Energy Regulation Commission (FERC) pushing for completion, but some Commissioners in the agency deeply concerned with the project’s impacts on greenhouse gas emissions associated with pipelines and LNG facilities.
But demand for gas does not always remain steady with supply, so Alton Natural Gas Storage LP (a subsidiary of AltaGas) has initiated a plan to create a network of underground caverns to store the gas in times of lower use. Excavating underground storage caverns from solid bedrock would be a technical impossibility. However, Central Nova Scotia is underlain by a thick layer of solid salt more than 3000 feet below the surface. Alton Gas plans to dissolve out the rock salt with water from the brackish Shubenacadie River that connects to the Bay of Fundy, and then return the resulting brine back into the waterway. The full build-out of the salt cavern complex would take 50 years, with an initial construction of two to four salt caverns, followed by construction of more than a dozen later on. Drilling of the first two wells has already been completed, but the solution mining has yet to begin.
Gas would be purchased and pumped into the caverns in the summertime when prices and demand are low, and shipped out during the colder months via the Halifax Lateral of the Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline. The gas would supply parts of Nova Scotia, but also would be destined for export. This is because the Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline connects to the location of the proposed Goldboro LNG facility, a project of Pieridae Energy. The Goldboro facility is designed to enable the shipping of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe, South America, and Asia. Work on this LNG facility was expected to be completed by mid-2018, but these plans are currently years behind schedule.
The traditional lands of the Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia are in the cross-hairs
What is now known as Nova Scotia is within traditional Mi’kmaq territory (Figure 2). These lands and waters encompass all of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick (North of the Saint John River), the Gaspé of Québec, and many surmise that it once included parts of the State of Maine and part of Newfoundland.
Figure 2: Lands of the Mi’kmaq. The Mi’kmaq of the region consist of numerous First Nations groups. The second largest band, the Sipekne’katik, reside in the area under threat by the Alton Gas facility. Approximately 1244 of the Sipekne’katik band’s 2588 members live on the traditional Sipekne’katik territory. Map produced by FracTracker Alliance.
The Shubenacadie River is tidal waterway that flows 45 miles across the width of Sipekne’katik territory in Nova Scotia and empties to the Bay of Fundy—known around the world for its unusual high and low tide extremes. When the salt water high tides rush in twice a day, they flow against the current of freshwater heading from inland to the ocean. The mixing of nutrients in the river has created a rich fishery. For millennia, the Shubenacadie has been a source of sustenance to the residents there.
Settler/ invaders from France, and later Great Britain, began arriving to these lands in 1605. France eventually relinquished its claim to the territory in 1763 with the Treaty of Paris. At that point, these lands were named by the British as “Nova Scotia” (or “New Scotland”). In advance of the Treaty of Paris, the British signed the 1752 Peace and Friendship Treaty Between His Majesty the King and the Jean Baptiste Cope (sachem of the Mi’kmaq at the time). Explicitly, Clause 4 of the 1752 Treaty states:
Figure 3: Excerpt from the 1752 Peace and Friendship Treaty. Info source: Government of Canada
In other words, by treaty, the Mi’kmaq were granted access to and the right to build a truckhouse structure along the Shubenacadie River if they were engaged in hunting, trapping, and fishing activities there. This clause in the treaty of 1752 has become an important tool for the Water Protectors of the Mi’kmaq Sipekne’katik band to resist the Alton Gas storage project.
Nearly 10 years ago, AltaGas announced plans to construct an extensive gas storage facility near Fort Ellis, Nova Scotia. Their idea is to create up to 18 underground storage caverns in the salt deposits lying beneath unceded traditional Sipekne’katik First Nation Mi’kmaq lands between the Shubenacadie and Stewiake Rivers in the central part of the province. The caverns would be created by dissolving salt layers 3000 feet underground with tidal water piped from a channel constructed along the Shubenacadie River (Figure 4).
Figure 4: Schematic of solution mining for the Alton Gas storage site planned near Stewiake, Nova Scotia. FracTracker Alliance.
A description of the salt cavern storage project noted in the Chronicle Herald reveals that in the initial phases of the mining, 10,000 cubic meters (2.64 million gallons) of water/day would be drawn from the Shubenacadie River. The water would be piped to the cavern site 12 km (7.5 miles) from the intake and injected a kilometer vertically into the salt layer below, slowly dissolving the salt. Then, after heavily saline water was pumped out of the solution cavern, it would be transferred by pipeline back to a mixing pond near the river, and mixed with brackish river water. The more dilute brine would be gradually discharged into the estuary over a period of 2-3 years, an average of 0.5 million gallons/day.
The water pumped from the cavern dissolution would have a salt concentration of 260 parts per thousand (ppt), more than seven times greater than that of seawater. AltaGas claims that this highly saline water would be diluted with so much water from the estuary that the fish and crustacean life in the river would be unaffected beyond a distance of a few meters of the outflow. However, this dilution system relies on brine releases that are timed to coincide with the inflow of the tides. An error in the dilution schedule could prove disastrous for the natural ecosystem of the river.
What will happen underground?
Constructing underground salt dissolution caverns for gas storage is a water-intensive process that requires careful engineering, as well as exacting infrastructure to avoid environmental harms. Video 1, below, shows the basic process for creating underground gas storage caverns in salt layers. Note that this is not an AltaGas-produced video and may not reflect the exact processes that would be employed at their site in Nova Scotia.
Video 1: Geostock Underground Storage in Salt-Leached Cavern. Source: YouTube
Video 2: AltaGas’ promotional video of proposed salt cavern storage facilities. Source: YouTube
The Mi’kmaq protesters do not agree that this is a benign project, asserting that this activity is directly in violation of the federal Fisheries Act, exposing fish in the mixing zone to elevated salinity levels that are not safe for marine and estuarine organisms. These organisms have evolved over time to handle normal, but not excessive (nor technologically mediated), fluctuations in water salinity.
Opponents of the project have pointed out the long-term impact of the project on their traditional fishing grounds. It will take an estimated 50 years to dissolve out the salt to create all 18 caverns, which means that the Shubenacadie River will be a dumping ground for this concentrated brine for half a century.
Environment Canada is the regulatory body that is overseeing the plans for brine discharge to the river. They are required, by law, to hold public meetings about the brine release plan, but these have yet to begin.
Visualizing the scale of these caverns
At completion, the 18 salt caverns would have the capacity to hold up to 10 billion cubic feet of pressurized methane, destined for overseas markets. The quantity of salt from to be removed from these caverns amounts to over 8 million cubic yards, or the equivalent of 500,000 dump truck loads.
By comparison, an Olympic-sized swimming pool with an average depth of about 6 feet (2 meters) holds 88,000 cubic feet of liquid. What is the equivalent number of swimming pools to contain this quantity of solid salt? About 2450 pools. If those pools were placed side by side, they would cover an area of 3 ½ miles by 3½ miles (shown in purple on the Interactive Map 2, below). That’s a lot of salt.
Map 2: Mi’kmaq protest site, proposed salt caverns, and brine pipeline
This interactive map shows the relative location of Mi’kmaq-led protest sites to proposed salt caverns and brine pipeline. View the map “Details” tab below in the top right corner to learn more and access the data, or click on the map to explore the dynamic version of this data. Data sources are also listed at the end of this article. In order to turn layers on and off in the map, use the Layers dropdown menu. This tool is only available in Full Screen view.
Mi’kmaq resistance led by Grassroots Grandmothers
In the summer of 2016, in accordance with rights outlined in the 1752 treaty, the Mi’kmaq erected their Treaty Truckhouse along the banks of the Shubenacadie River (Figures 5-7), mere feet from the channel Alton Gas constructed for disposal of waste brine back into the river. This direct action protest helped to impede construction of the project, and established the presence and observation by the Mi’kmaq of the activities there, as depicted in Map 3 below.
Map 3: Treaty Truckhouse and surrounding Alton Gas infrastructure
This interactive map shows multiple Mi’kmaq-led protest sites relative to Alton Gas infrastructure. View the map “Details” tab below in the top right corner to learn more and access the data, or click on the map to explore the dynamic version of this data. Data sources are also listed at the end of this article. In order to turn layers on and off in the map, use the Layers dropdown menu. This tool is only available in Full Screen view.
Figure 5: The Treaty Truckhouse. Credit: Jared Durelle.
Figure 6: The Treaty Truckhouse. Source: Google Maps
Figure 7: The Treaty Truckhouse in proximity to the Shubenacadie River. Credit: Shawn Maloney.
Peaceful resistance is led by “Grassroots Grandmothers,” Water Protectors who include indigenous Mi’kmaq women Dorene Bernard (Figure 8) and Michelle Paul. These resolute activists are focusing on preventing environmental disaster and also what is clearly a violation of their treaty rights. Michelle Paul refers to the Shubenacadie River as sacred, and a “super highway for [her] nation.”
Figure 8: Grassroots Grandmothers protesting at AltaGas office in Stewiacke, Nova Scotia. (Left to right) Grandmother Josephine Mandamin, Mother Earth Water Walker, Grandmother Dorene Bernard, and Elder Annabelle Mott Stewart-Thiebaux, Water Protector. Credit: Dorene Bernard.
There have been nearly daily active protests at AltaGas’ gate for more than four years. In a move that the Grandmothers found highly disrespectful and disturbing, AltaGas created a fenced in “peaceful protest” cage for the indigenous people opposing the project. In addition, the women leading the fight have engaged with politicians that have included Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Nova Scotia’s Premier, Stephen McNeil. PM Trudeau has been trying to change existing regulations to benefit the gas company, since AltaGas is not even currently in compliance with federal laws governing the environment. The Grandmothers have been told that the Department of Fisheries will only step in after something goes wrong, however.
Said Felix, one of the indigenous Mi’kmaq protesters at the Truckhouse featured in Video 3, above:
“I take my orders from the grandmothers, the elders. They’re the only ones that are allowed to tell me what to do, and what not to do. I got my orders: stay here, hold this space. Don’t give company access to the site.
The water is irreplaceable…Number one thing we need for life, for sustenance. Our job here as Mi’kmaq people is to make sure that this Earth stays green. Protect the sacred. Protect the water. Protect it all for the next seven generations, for everyone to come, in the future.
Every person has to agree. …The seven districts, from all the bands, also have to agree, too. Not just the chiefs. Like all the Mi’kmaq people have to agree. They’re with this, or not with it. That’s what the leaders, the chiefs, are supposed to do.”
In addition to the Treaty Truckhouse, in May 2017, the Mi’kmaq protestors also constructed a larger shelter in the form of a sturdy straw-bale house. The structure was on an access road, a short distance from the Shubenacadie River. AltaGas has still restricted access to parts of the property, determining which areas are supposed to be off-limits to protestors. As a result, the strawbale structure no longer remains; it was destroyed by AltaGas in September 2019.
Awareness-raising Water Walk, May 22 – 30
In an ongoing effort to raise awareness of risks to the Shubenacadie River posed by Alton Gas, the Grassroots Grandmothers have planned an event that takes place the last week in May. Here is their description and statement.
Mi’kmaki Water Walk 2021 is a week-long Water Ceremony, led by Mi’kmaq Women, to pray for the protection and healing of the water, open to those who want to join in and pray for the water Week of May 22 – 30. The walk is 71 miles (114 km) from Dartmouth (on the Atlantic coast side of Nova Scotia along the Halifax Harbor) to Maitland, NS, at the mouth of the Shubenacadie River on Cobequid Bay.
We will carry the water of our beautiful, bountiful, ecosystem, the historic Shubenacadie River Watershed, from the Halifax Harbor to Maitland, NS, in the footsteps of our Ancestors, along the Shubenacadie Canal system, Shubenacadie Grand Lake and Shubenacadie River system, 114 KM. We will pray and walk for the Water and give thanks as Treaty People, to honor our responsibility to protect the water and respect our Mother Earth. Our river is still under threat of destruction and we need to stand up and speak for the water, pray for the water, and protect the water that has sustained us for over 13,000 years in Mi’kmaki.
Traditionally, the women are responsible to care for and protect the water. Water is Sacred. Water is Life. Water is the life-giving blood of our Mother Earth. Women have been gifted with the ability to carry life in the womb, surrounded by water, we drink the water, breathe the water, we are the water. When we are born, we come through the water. Women have also been given the responsibility to protect the water for our children and all future generations. The water needs our prayers and protection now, and we must come together to honor the water and Mother Earth and stand and speak for the water and all our relations – the flyers, swimmers, crawlers, burrowers, plants, trees, rocks, all life that needs clean water to survive.
Our late Grandmother Josephine Mandamin, Mother Earth Water Walker, inspired and taught many women to walk for the water in ceremony to honor our Mother Earth and for protection and healing for the water. Her legacy lives on in the many women walking for the water across Turtle Island. We walk to create awareness, as L’nu, human beings, we are the caretakers and protectors of the lands and waters, the natural elements gifted to us by our Creator. We are placed upon the Earth to share in this most important responsibility to ensure that there will always be clean water, clean air, clean earth, medicines and all that is needed to live for the next 7 generations to come. Netukulimk, we give gratitude, take only what is needed, always uphold the integrity of the environment that is needed to sustain us.
“We walk to honor all water, Nibi, and to speak to the water spirits so that there will be healthy rivers, lakes, and Oceans for our Ancestors and the Generations to come.” -Grandmother Josephine Mandamin
Threats to the Mi’kmaq “downstream” of the caverns, along the gas pipeline
Gas stored in the caverns is held there temporarily; ultimately it is transported to market—some of which is overseas. There is already an export location at the terminus of the Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline at Point Tupper.
However, a new project is now in the planning stages. Construction on the proposed Goldboro LNG export terminal—and the associated “man camps” that will be built for the company’s workers—is supposed to be starting soon, in June 2021 (Interactive Map 4, below). But Mi’kmaq resistance is already organizing against this project, as well, raising the alarm about the epidemic of murdered and missing indigenous women due to human trafficking in the vicinity of these man camps established for temporary workers in the oil and gas industry.
Map 4: Proposed Goldboro LNG facility
This interactive map shows the site of a proposed LNG export terminal. View the map “Details” tab below in the top right corner to learn more and access the data, or click on the map to explore the dynamic version of this data. Data sources are also listed at the end of this article. In order to turn layers on and off in the map, use the Layers dropdown menu. This tool is only available in Full Screen view.
According to a recent article in the Nova Scotia Advocate newspaper, “Nova Scotia has the highest rate of human trafficking incidents in the country with 2.1 occurrences per 100,000 people.” With knowledge of the rampant drug and alcohol use common among transient workers who live in these man camps, the Grassroots Grandmothers are raising the alarm about how this additional aspect of oil and gas infrastructure will put their communities at risk.
The REDress Project (Figure 9) was initiated in 2014 by Métis artist Jaime Black stands as witness to the threat to, and loss of, thousands of these precious lives across North America. Mi’kmaq Grassroots Grandmothers are adopting the same symbolism in their fight against the Goldboro facility.
Negative impacts from the Pieridae Goldboro LNG facility extend well beyond potential harms to indigenous women. In this recent webinar from May 10, 2021, speakers look at the social, economic, and environmental impacts of the facility, both in Canada and in Europe.
Video 4. Goldboro LNG webinar, May 10 2021. Source: YouTube.
The Take Away
Mi’kmaq people have lived in Nova Scotia for over 10,000 years, on land that was never officially ceded to settler nations. Invoking an important clause in the Treaty of 1752, the Mi’kmaq maintain their right to build a truckhouse on the banks of the Shubenacadie River. This ensures that they will always have access to the fishing resources there, and also provides a crucial vantage point for them to monitor and protest the activities of AltaGas.
There has been substantial local resistance to the Alton Gas storage project among First Nations groups in Nova Scotia. There was inadequate-to-nonexistent opportunity for the Mi’kmaq people to weigh in on this project, and the Mi’kmaq have prevailed in their challenge to utilize their legal right for more thorough consultation about the impacts the project will have on the Shubenacadie River. Consultation has yet to be scheduled, however. In addition, because the storage project is connected to the build-out of infrastructure all the way to the proposed LNG terminal, more than 85 miles away, many fear will pose dire safety issues for the indigenous people—especially women—living in the area.
This environmental justice fight is a microcosm of a global threat that indigenous people are fighting for themselves AND future generations, trying to protect land that has deep ties to the heart and soul of their cultures.
Follow the Grassroots Grandmothers on Twitter @stopaltongas, and visit their website Stop Alton Gas.
To view an excellent documentary on this evolving fight, see Elliot Page’s 2019 film, There’s Something In The Water on Netflix. Page interviewed nine women involved in this fight and others across Nova Scotia. The film presents a moving portrayal of the struggle for indigenous rights and recognition of sovereignty across the region.
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Digging deeper: More on solution mining, risks, and community resistance
In the United States, Class III injection wells are used to mine uranium, sulfur, copper, and salt. Salt deposits across the country are widespread; deposits stretch from New York to Michigan, through parts of the Rocky Mountain States, and along the Gulf Coast (see Figure 10). Pure salt for human consumption is created through a commercial process of solution mining. However, only approximately 5% of all Class III injection wells are dedicated to salt mining. A well is drilled 1000 feet (305 meters) or deeper into salt deposits, and hot water is pumped into the hole over time, gradually dissolving salt in the target layer. Eventually, the cavern is large enough that it’s more economical to start a new well, given the volume of water required to fill the cavity.
Figure 10: Underground salt deposits around the United States. Source: Geology.com
At this point, the caverns left behind from solution mining the salt may be plugged permanently, or else used for hydrocarbon storage.
It is not uncommon to store gas in salt caverns. According to one source, up to 4 trillion cubic feet of gas (113,267,400 cubic meters) can be stored and withdrawn in the United States at any point. In fact, up to 10% of the gas stored in the US is held in salt caverns. Across the United States, this has been done in areas with deep salt layers that were deposited hundreds of million years ago; these facilities include the narrow and deep salt dome bedrock areas along the Gulf Coast, as well in the bedded salt layers in the Northeast and Midwest (Figure 11), which tend to be more shallow and thin than those of the salt domes, and are interspersed with layers of sedimentary rocks like shale and sandstone (much like a massive layer cake).
Active storage of gas in abandoned, unlined salt caverns occurs in many locations, including Texas, Virginia, Michigan, and along the shore of Seneca Lake in Central New York. This site in the Finger Lakes Region had once been proposed as a massive hub for liquid propane, butane, and LPG storage.
Figure 11: Locations in the US where methane, a fracked gas, is stored. Source: energyinfrastructure.org; EIA
Despite the abundance of salt cavern storage facilities in the US, their use has not been absent of devastating impacts. There have been numerous failures of these salt caverns across the United States, including migration of gas or brine into nearby water bodies, explosions, and sinkhole collapses such at the one that occurred in 1980 at Lake Peigneur, Louisiana. Storage facilities exist in New York State, Ohio, and Louisiana, among other places.
Many communities have accepted the siting of large gas storage facilities. However, along Seneca Lake in New York State, an 8-year campaign by activists culminated in 2018 (Figure 12), when Crestwood Energy was denied permits for expansion of their facility, following Crestwood’s admission of possible leakage in the caverns. Nonetheless, three caverns at Crestwood’s site remain in use for hydrocarbon storage.
Figure 12: One of scores of protests against Crestwood Energy’s gas storage plans next to Seneca Lake in Central New York State. Source: We Are Seneca Lake
Rock salt is also mined in parts of the United States, and used on roads in the winter. This process utilizes deep elevator shafts that bring miners and equipment deep below the ground, and the solid salt is mechanically removed using explosives and heavy machinery (Figure 13). The world’s largest rock salt mine—the Goderich mine, owned by Compass Minerals— is located under Lake Huron in the province of Ontario. In the US, there are large rock salt mines in Cleveland, Ohio, and in central and western New York.
Figure 13: Rock salt mining, deep underground. Credit: Bob Jagendorf.
References & Where to Learn More
Sites of controversy. Digitized by FracTracker Alliance from variety media sources and reports.
Equivalent sized swimming pool as salt cavern volume. Calculated by FracTracker Alliance.
Brine pipeline. Digitized by FracTracker Alliance from image posted online by StopAltonGas.
Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline. Digitized by FracTracker Alliance from https://mnpp.com/~/media/Microsites/MNPP/Documents/0901-15047_MNP_Detail_Map_Apr-7-09.pdf?la=en
Algonquin Pipeline. Digitized by FracTracker Alliance https://www.eia.gov/petroleum/xls/EIA_LiqPipProject.xlsx. Nov 2019. https://www.arcgis.com/home/item.html?id=3916e9ab561c45be8a715dece6f054d3
Cultural features. Digitized by FracTracker Alliance from variety media sources and reports.
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