Storing Natural Gas

Nova Scotians discovered last winter that the price of natural gas can rise steeply when the weather gets cold. Price volatility is accentuated by the limited pipeline capability in and out of the province.

The Alton Gas Storage project is designed to provide a parking place for gas produced during the warmer months so that it can be available when demand is highest. The storage facility should improve price stability for customers and facilitate the transition away from less climate-friendly coal.

Storage caverns are created by drilling a well into a salt formation and circulating water through it. Salt dissolves in the water, is brought back to the surface, and returns to the Shubenacadie River at a point 12 km from the place where it empties into the Bay of Fundy. The construction is estimated to cost $100 million, entirely financed by Alta Gas, and is already employing 70 people.

As part of the work to receive approvals the company is required to engage with both aboriginal and non-native communities. This happened in 2007 and again in 2011 and initial environmental approvals were duly granted. The company advises that leading up to the current round of construction activity they also updated and consulted with local municipal officials.

The fact that there have nevertheless been noisy protests by aboriginal and non-native groups says a lot about how difficult it is to get the community engagement process right.

The principal concern appears to be about the salinity of the river, and the consequent impact on fish. Alton`s method takes advantage of a unique Nova Scotian resource, the prodigious tides of the Bay of Fundy. They drive ocean water upstream well past the point where Alton proposes to return water to the river.

There the salinity at high tide can reach two thirds the level found in the ocean. So gradually feeding the saline water into the river during high tide can be done in such a way that total salinity never exceeds that which occurs naturally.

Apart from that the impact of any saline injection only flows into the Bay of Fundy within a few hours. As a practical matter the salmon and striped bass about which concern is expressed actually spend most of their lives in the saltier ocean.

The substantial time lapse since the original public consultations in 2007 meant that memory of the explanations had faded. Interest in the topic reignited when the pace of construction ramped up.

In anticipation the company produced a brief brochure this year to help people understand what would happen. Unfortunately it is not very useful. It does not describe how the impact on river salinity will be controlled. Nor does it explain why the project can be good for Nova Scotian gas consumers. An updated version has been hurried into production, and may be helpful for many who had unanswered questions.

The aboriginal part of the discussions creates a particular dilemma. Alton feels it is closely following the province’s guide on how proponents should engage with Mi’kmaq communities. The salinity issue was raised by aboriginal groups in 2007 and the Ministerial approval of the project was made conditional on a satisfactory approach being developed, including involvement of the federal Department of Fisheries. Consultations with the Mi’kmaq leaders continue on this and other issues.

Approvals are done in stages. The approvals to date do not yet include the right to send salinized water back into the river. So what are the protests about?

The spokesperson for the aboriginal protesters is Cheryl Maloney. She is not appointed to speak for any of the bands. In fact the Shubenacadie band, of which she is a member, has issued a release distancing itself from the protest.

Maloney has had no contact with Alton nor is she interested in understanding their efforts to protect the environment. The province’s guide, adhering to Supreme Court of Canada rulings, instructs proponents to engage with the chiefs and councils of the 13 bands. She does not accept that ruling, feeling that some other process to seek approval by the Mi’kmaq nation is required.
She is opposed to a project she has not taken the trouble to understand, and wants it to be stopped. It is hard to imagine how Alta can usefully respond, let alone engage with that position.

Some non-native opponents may not understand the limited extent of approvals to date, nor Alton’s plan to protect the river.

For others it will not make any difference how safe the project is for the river. Being of the view that any project supporting fossil fuels should be opposed, by whatever means are available, they are happy to follow Maloney’s lead.

In general the protests against the Alton project are perhaps premature, and in some cases willfully ill-informed. There are lessons for all sides.Proponents for projects that are perceived to have environmental impacts must view government requirements to engage as a bare minimum. They should seek every opportunity to not only explain what they are doing but to hear and respond to the concerns of open-minded citizens, both aboriginal and non-native.

Those citizens must in turn be willing to learn about the potential benefits of projects and how risks are being mitigated.

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