Nova Scotia

Alton Gas project cancelled after years of opposition

After years of delays, court hearings and strong Mi'kmaw opposition, the project on the Shubenacadie River will be decommissioned, the company says.

'I think they finally just tapped,' says Mi'kmaw leader

The Alton Gas project on the Shubenacadie River has been stopped. Work on decommissioning the site will now begin. (Shawn Maloney)

After years of delays, court hearings and strong Mi'kmaw opposition, the Alton Gas project on the Shubenacadie River has been cancelled.

In a release Friday, Alton, a subsidiary of Calgary-based energy company AltaGas, said the project has received "mixed support, challenges and experienced delay."

In 2018, AltaGas also "divested its interest" in the Nova Scotia natural gas utility, the release said, as the company repositioned to focus on other areas like energy export opportunities off the west coast of North America and natural gas utilities 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," the statement said.

Cheryl Maloney of the Sipekne'katik First Nation was one of the first Mi'kmaw leaders to protest the project out of environmental concerns. She organized a traffic slow-down back in 2014 to let Nova Scotians know what was happening.

"I think they finally just tapped," Maloney said Friday. "This is not a good project for Nova Scotia, it's not a good project for Nova Scotians.

"This was for the seven generations of everyone. You know, protecting the river isn't just seven generations of Mi'kmaq — it's seven generations of Nova Scotia that this work has been done for."

Cheryl Maloney (left) attends a 2016 Alton Gas protest, along with Elder Isabelle Knockwood of the Sipekne'katik First Nation. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

Maloney said she'll likely celebrate the news back at the "makeshift bar" in her basement where she and her brother and sister planned the initial protest. 

She added that the cancellation comes just as the Mi'kmaw grandmothers and Sipekne'katik community were preparing to go "back to square one" after new orders from the courts.

Last March, the Nova Scotia Supreme Court ruled that the province had to resume consultations with Sipekne'katik over their environmental concerns before the Alton project could get underway.

Justice Frank Edwards ruled Margaret Miller, the former Nova Scotia environment minister, was wrong when she concluded the province had adequately consulted with the First Nation about the project.

Dorene Bernard, a social worker, academic and member of the Sipekne'katik First Nation, has been a protest leader for years on the issue. She has said protesters have a sacred duty to protect the 73-kilometre tidal river.

In a Facebook post Friday, Bernard congratulated all the water protectors and land defenders. 

"You all have powerful voices and they have been heard," she said.

In the coming weeks and months, Alton Gas will discuss next steps related to decommissioning the project with federal and provincial regulators, the Mi'kmaq and other interested parties.

As the decommissioning moves forward, Alton said it will continue working to minimize their environmental impact "as we remain committed to the health of the Shubenacadie River estuary."

Alton Gas storage protesters in 2014.

7 years ago
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Mi'kmaq people demonstrate against plans for a natural gas storage facility. 1:12

A political and legal controversy related to the province's consultation on the Alton Gas project is ongoing.

Former Justice Department lawyer Alex Cameron acted on the province's behalf during a 2016 court hearing relating to Sipekne'katik's opposition to the Alton Gas project.

Cameron argued the province did not have a duty to consult because that requirement only applied to "unconquered people," which he implied was not the case with Mi'kmaw communities.

That argument sparked outrage and led former premier Stephen McNeil to personally apologize to a group of Mi'kmaw chiefs. He insisted that was not the province's position.

Cameron was removed from the file and subsequently retired, and is now suing the province, McNeil and former justice minister Diana Whalen for defamation, abuse of public office and constructive dismissal.

An unidentified man stands at a Mi'kmaw camp at the entrance to an Alton Gas work site along the Shubenacadie River in 2019. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

The Alton company thanked the people and organizations that contributed to the development of the project, including more than 70 Nova Scotia companies that provided goods, services and labour. 

"We appreciate your engagement and commitment to Alton and believe that natural gas storage remains extremely important for the Maritimes and New England market, with natural gas demand continuing to grow in Nova Scotia among businesses and homeowners," the company said.

The Alton project has been on hold since protests started in 2014, and a protest camp was set up near the river two years later. In 2019, Alton Gas applied to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia to have protesters removed from the area and a straw house was bulldozed.

Natural Resources and Renewables Minister Tory Rushton said his department was informed of Alton's decision Friday morning.

"Any time a business does leave the province of Nova Scotia, it's disappointing," he said. "But at the end of the day, this was a business decision made by the company."

When asked if the move had anything to do with the protests and controversy surrounding the project, Rushton said he could not speculate on any motives.

Rushton said the cancellation will have an impact on the supply of natural gas into Nova Scotia, but there are other companies showing interest in local resources, adding "our province is still open for business."

Natural Resources and Renewables Minister, Tory Rushton, said the province is still "open for business" when it comes to natural gas in N.S. (CBC)

The Alton Gas project planned to create underground caverns by using water from the Shubenacadie River to flush out nearby natural salt deposits, where they would store up to 10 billion cubic feet of natural gas.

According to their plan, the briny mixture of river water and salt from the underground deposits would be gradually reintroduced to the river over two to three years.

Rushton said any businesses that want to come in with a similar model would have to meet environmental approvals and consultation with Indigenous and local communities.

"The environment is very important to us here in 2021, and industry is important as well. But we've said, as government, we can have both — the climate and industry," Rushton said.

With files from Jean Laroche and Alex Guye

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