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Alton Gas project a potential disaster in slow motion

Op-ed published in Local Xpress, March 7, 2017

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said: ‘Governments grant permits, but communities grant permission.’ It’s critical that we continue to reject this project, not only to avoid its immediate consequences, but to erode the pervasive profit-at-all-costs mentality driving unsustainable development.

It has been four years since the Nova Scotia government approved Alton Gas’s plan to build a natural gas pipeline for its massive gas storage project.

Alberta-based AltaGas’s Alton Gas project plans to drill into a Colchester County salt vein about 10 kilometres northeast of Stewiacke, flush out large caverns in the salt bed and dispose of the resulting brine by dumping it into the Shubenacadie River. Once the mining is complete, the company would fill the caverns with natural gas at incredibly high pressures.


The caverns are about 12 kilometres from the Shubenacadie River. Originally, four were planned, but that has since been reduced to two. (altonnaturalgasstorage.ca)

Alton Gas is a tangible example of the profit-at-all-costs mentality of our current society, despite the obvious dangers.

Luckily, due largely to the company’s brazen approach, the project is delayed from its proposed completion date this year and the expected gas storage capacity is much less than was originally proposed.

This project is cringeworthy on many levels, but there are four key problems: water, climate, indigenous rights, and public control of natural resources.

Alton Gas vs. water

This project threatens water at every stage of its construction and operation. Much of the opposition to the project has centred on the Shubenacadie River and the impact the salt brine would have on the ecosystem that provides food, livelihood and culture for all people, Mi’kmaq and otherwise.

Beyond the Shubenacadie River, the pipe that would carry brine from the caverns to the river runs through 12 kilometres of farmers’ fields. Just one leak could spill up to 989,000 litres of salt brine into farmland at a concentration 10 times higher than seawater, devastating food production, surface water and the local economy.

A 10-kilometre lateral connection line would carry natural gas from the caverns to the Maritimes & Northeast pipeline. That connector requires clearing a 20-metre strip of land for the length of the pipeline — that’s about 20 hectares of land stripped bare amid wetlands and stands of old-growth forest. It would then cross under the Stewiacke River, depriving it of critical stabilizing plant life at the steepest point along its banks. If the pipeline burst under the river, methane would bubble through the water and into the atmosphere.

Then there are the caverns themselves. Alton Gas suggests that the salt caverns would be completely sealed and leak-proof, but statistics tell us otherwise. There are only about 40 natural gas cavern storage projects in North America, with a 65 per cent incidence rate over 30 years.

In environmental assessment documents, Alton Gas itself admits that leaks happen, citing one case where natural gas appeared 12 kilometres away from the storage site in a populated area, evoking my-tap-water-is-on-fire imagery. The risk of the high-pressure natural gas inside the caverns leaking into groundwater cannot be overlooked.

Alton Gas vs. climate

The link between new fossil fuel infrastructure and climate change should be obvious. We’re fast approaching Earth’s climate tipping point, and leaders ranging from the Pope to Neil Young are pleading with politicians to ditch fossil fuels in favour of renewable energies.

So why is Nova Scotia supporting this new fossil fuel project instead of a just transition to a green energy economy?

The Alton Gas development is more insidious than a single project — it is the natural gas industry’s foot in the door to expand transportation and consumption in Nova Scotia. While this project originally proposed four gas storage caverns, the company openly discussed its plans to “develop as many as 10 to 15 caverns.” A storage facility of that size would vastly exceed Nova Scotia’s current natural gas needs, and would facilitate an export market, likely servicing liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities, and would enable further fossil fuel industry expansion.

Under no circumstances are the Alton Gas project or spinoff fossil fuel developments in line with Nova Scotia’s commitments to curb emissions.

Alton Gas vs. indigenous rights

Despite government overtures about reconciliation, indigenous peoples, their values, and First Nation treaties are consistently disregarded in favour of fossil fuel extraction and transportation.

The consultation with Mi’kmaq communities was laughable, and resulted in a bitter legal case that ended in January. The result? The Nova Scotia government, after deeply embarrassing itself, was required to revisit some aspects of the consultation with Sipekne’katik First Nation.

If reconciliation is what Nova Scotia wants, supporting the Alton Gas project is an example of what not to do.

Alton Gas vs. your right to know

As I have alluded to above, the public has been largely excluded from the review of Alton Gas’s impact. Neighbours of the cavern sites — their front doors are only a hundred feet away — did not know about the project until nearly seven years after it was proposed. Having been left out of the original consultation process, neighbours are disputing wetland alteration permits, searching for emergency contingency plans and looking for Alton Gas’s “community liaison committee,” which is rumoured to exist but nowhere to be found.

The public has been consistently kept out of decision-making in an environmental assessment process that does not value meaningful public participation.

In these ways, Alton Gas exposes what is wrong with a public decision-making framework based on profit.

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said: “Governments grant permits, but communities grant permission.” It’s critical that we continue to reject this project, not only to avoid its immediate consequences, but to erode the pervasive profit-at-all-costs mentality driving unsustainable development.

Robin Tress is an organizer with the Council of Canadians, a national social justice organization. For three years, she has been working alongside leaders from Sipekne’katik and beyond to stop Alton Gas. She’s co-organizing panel discussions about Alton Gas in multiple Nova Scotia communities, with an event in Halifax on March 27.