Four years ago, if you had asked Stephanie Merrill of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick(CCNB) and Jennifer West of the Ecology Action Centre (EAC) in Nova Scotia the odds of success in their respective efforts to enact fracking bans in their provinces, they would have likely replied: pretty low. After all, they were going up against a powerful industry, lax government oversight, and a largely uninformed public.
Yet last fall, the provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick joined Quebec in halting the practice of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas.
How did this happen? Where did the eventual groundswell of public opposition to fracking come from? What were the key strategies of the anti-fracking campaigns?
To find out, we asked Merrill and West to share their respective stories and reflections. We hope that their experiences and lessons will be insightful to others in the freshwater community.
NEW BRUNSWICK: WATER FOR THE WIN
Ultimately, water was the lynchpin that led to one of the largest citizen-engaged movements in the recent history of New Brunswick.
Safety concerns about personal drinking water--65% of New Brunswickers get their drinking water from private groundwater wells—are what triggered the initial interest in learning about fracking, explains Stephanie Merrill of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick.
“Water was the part of the valued part of the ‘environment’ that residents here identified with the strongest,” Merrill says, noting that the province has many relatively pristine rivers and lakes and a long tradition of salmon fishing, in addition to the preponderance of private rural drinking water wells.
Today, Merrill is a polished spokesperson, with countless media interviews under her belt. But back in March 2010 when Merrill was about to start working at CCNB, she told her then-boss David Coon (now the leader of the New Brunswick Green Party and the province’s first elected Green MLA) that she preferred doing research and staying behind the scenes, professing that she wasn’t comfortable doing media or being involved in controversial issues. Coon smiled and nodded.
The month she started at CCNB, the New Brunswick government granted Texas-based SWN Resources Canada the right to explore for shale gas on 1 million hectares of land in the province. The size of these exploration rights and the fact that they literally crossed people’s backyards propelled interest in finding out the environmental and health impacts of fracking, Merrill says.
She spent the summer of 2010 researching and writing a seven-page public primer that offered a breakdown of health and environmental concerns and risks, particularly to water—such as drinking water wells, streams and rivers, and the production of huge quantities of wastewater.
At this point, Merrill didn’t have much of an overall campaign strategy, other than informing others about what she had learned. Her research was well received, and she found herself responding to an increasing number of requests from service clubs, university classes, municipalities, community groups, and church groups to give presentations.
Merrill says it really helped that she could relate to her audiences. Born in a rural New Brunswick community, she was familiar with the economic hardships associated with the bust of resource extraction sectors such as forestry and thus could empathize with the concerns around the lack of local jobs, which was of course the industry’s selling point.
During her presentations to groups, Merrill laid out what she had learned about fracking--the whole process, from seismic testing through to abandoning wells—from her research as well as connections and visits to other jurisdictions where fracking was further along. Although CCNB had developed a strong position on the issue of shale gas fracking, Merrill felt it was important at the beginning not to steer people in a particular direction:
“The key was to build trusting and credible relationships and provide information in a way that made people interested, and to leave them with enough questions to want to explore the issue on their own,” she recalls.
From Info to Action
The response was great, as community groups popped up throughout the province; by 2011, about 40 local anti-fracking groups had formed, either from pre-existing community associations or brand-new groups, to focus on the current issue. Following her presentations, these groups would come back together to host screenings for films such as “Gasland,” and/or develop action plans.
Along the way, Merrill’s role began to shift. By 2012, her work had evolved from educating communities and groups to helping the new groups connect with each other and “build up social capital on the issue.” This contributed to community-based actions becoming more sophisticated, from letters-to-the-editor blitzes and door-to-door canvassing to anti-fracking groups jointly organizing rallies and strategic communications and actions to allies (e.g. unions, church groups and First Nations communities and groups).
From Network to Alliance
The coordination of anti-fracking groups went through a couple of iterations, Merrill explains. First, many groups joined the New Brunswick Environmental Network, which provided teleconferencing services, workshop facilitation and a web platform for sharing with each other and the wider public. This enabled groups to connect with each other; however, the lack of an overarching voice made it difficult to coordinate actions between these autonomous, volunteer-based groups.
As a result, in September 2011, a few individuals/organizations left the network to form a separate committee that became the New Brunswick Anti-Shale Gas Alliance.
“The idea was that being an entity with one voice would be more effective; for example, it helped us in organizing press conferences and media packages and responding to media requests. “ Merrill says. It was also practical, in that groups had developed a large fundraising effort for a legal action and being an incorporated group with a board of directors was a necessary step to make the legal action possible.
Having many of the groups housed under the umbrella of the Alliance allowed Merrill and CCNB to evolve from network coordination to a more behind-the-scenes role of adviser—helping the Alliance with media messaging, public communications and actions, and strategic planning.
“This is the best thing that can to happen in a big public engagement campaign, when a movement takes on a life of its own, and the community takes responsibility and drives it,” she says.
A key to the success of the anti-fracking movement in New Brunswick, according to Merrill, has been its ability to unite three peoples--Anglophone, Francophone and First Nations—in a way that hasn’t been seen in the province’s recent history. For example, the St. Mary’s First Nation in the city of Fredericton and the Elsipogtog in Kent County hosted intercultural strategy discussions and led the public conversation about First Nations rights and resource extraction, and hosted events for cultural sharing such as the building of a longhouse on downtown park property in the province’s capital. Even more telling is that for the first time, non-First Nations allies were invited to the annual gatherings of the Wabanaki Confederacy, the traditional “government” of the Maliseet people.
Typically, despite New Brunswick being on unceded territory of the Maliseet and Mi’kimaq Nations, there is often a lack of meaningful conversations with First Nations communities and people concerning resource development in the province, Merrill says. She explains that “consultation” has been a controversial topic, and often, including in the shale gas fracking discussions, First Nations organizations, communities and individuals have felt left out and “only a mere check mark on the consultation boxes of review processes.“
By 2013, tensions between First Nations and allied groups, and the fracking company and the RCMP were building rapidly, Merrill recalls. She says that a clash seemed inevitable.
Early in the morning of October 17, 2013, the RCMP decided to break up a 17-day-old blockade of seismic testing equipment along a stretch of highway near the town of Rexton. Things quickly got out of hand: pepper spray, Molotov cocktails, camouflaged police snipers, five burned RCMP vehicles, and 40 people arrested, including the Chief and Council of the Elsipogtog First Nations.
It turned the anti-shale gas fracking protests into a national story. But despite the clash finally “bursting through the provincial media bubble” and leading to Idle No More solidarity actions across the country, Merrill still wishes that it hadn’t happened. “I was watching the events unfold on social media and the news and recognized a lot of faces of community members I had met and become friends with,” Merrill recalls. “It was a very emotional day and a lot of people are still feeling very traumatized by the events.”
By 2014, while the anti-shale gas movement was increasingly winning the public debate, they didn’t seem to be making much political progress. According to Merrill, the discourse had gotten so polarized between anti-fracking activists and the Conservative government that the conversation “essentially got shut down.” As a result, the Alliance turned its attention to making the issue part of the 2014 election campaign, advocating that New Brunswick voters say no to Shale gas.
Politicians on all sides seemed quite willing to have shale gas be the centerpiece of the campaign. Merrill says that the Conservatives made fracking a core part of their election platform, advocating that New Brunswickers #sayyes to shale gas. This, she explains, forced the Liberal party into a position to call for a moratorium, and hope that polling indicating that a slim majority of likely voters were against shale gas fracking was accurate.
“It was an intense six weeks,” Merrill recalls. She says that for the first time in a long time, an environmental issue was a core election issue in New Brunswick--so much so that the political debate over shale gas fracking became the central focus of the media and this made it hard to talk about anything else, such as a “poorly advised” Crown Lands management strategy that the then-government had just introduced.
During the election, CCNB issued an environmental questionnaire to all candidates, and Merrill wrote a blog post at the height of the campaign to reiterate what experts and professionals and other jurisdictions were saying about shale gas.
With the 2014 election essentially a referendum on shale gas fracking, when the Liberals won a majority government and a Green Party MLA was elected for the first time, it was clear that a halt to the practice of shale gas fracking was soon to follow. And it did, on December 18 when the new government announced a moratorium.
After a long hard-fought campaign, there was much rejoicing and gratitude. And also a lot of reflection on what was learned along the way. Some of Merrill’s major insights:
• Water is a winning strategy. Because it connects with all environmental issues from forest management to pipelines and resonates with New Brunswickers, CCNB is moving toward making water a central theme in all of their work, including in their Forest and Energy programs.
• Follow your nose. For a campaign to be successful, you have to be able to adapt to changing conditions. Be opportunistic for media, for public accessibility and for political influence.
• Understand the pros and cons of being very accessible. On the one hand, it allows you to build trust and relationships with community groups around your concern about the issues—“I was seen as a real human not a ‘campaigner from the city.’” On the other hand, it means a large personal sacrifice: “the issue really swallowed me for more than three years; in the end, it got the job done, but I really had to be conscious of burnout and step away when I felt the wall approaching”
• Get savvy on political decision-making. “I could have been more organized in strategic planning, especially on the political side. I was naïve, didn’t really understand political decision-making, including around the space that your asks are taking up among the overall asks of politicians. I’ve never had that kind of training before; it is a part of our work that is rarely talked about openly for fear of ‘political activity’ constraints for charities. I have learned that not all work to have political influence must be deemed political activity and I think there is room for more organizations to have political influence without fear for their charitable status. It’s more about appreciating how decisions are being made and communicating more with politicians.”
• It’s not easy to communicate strategy and tactics. "I learned a lot about public perception, communication and issue positioning during this campaign. New Brusnwickers tend not to want to be controversial and want to be rational in their positions. There were also challenges around communicating your strategy and tactics to allies and others often resulting in unintended consequences. These seem to be unavoidable consequences, such as other groups not wanting to work with you because your position is too strong, or even too weak, or the media and a segment of the population labels the movement as radicals opposed to progress. I found myself often frustrated by the lack of ability of groups (whether a part of the campaign or outside it) to think strategically or appreciate strategic positions and actions to get results; however, I also understand why and how it happens.”
NOVA SCOTIA: PERSISTENCE PAYS OFF
When Jennifer West got the word on Sept 3, 2014 that the Nova Scotia government was set to announce its decision on shale gas fracking, the geosocience coordinator for the Ecology Action Centre didn’t know what to expect.
“We were equally prepared to celebrate or to storm the streets!” West recalls. “Up until that point, it was hard to tell if we were making a difference. We were prepared for a long fight.”
Bill 6, an amendment to the Petroleum Resources Act, (which officially became an act on November 20, 2014) turned out to be cause for celebration, as it prohibits the fracking of shale gas in the province. Four years of hard work, creativity, alliance-building by West and her cohorts had finally paid off.
A geologist by training, West first learned about fracking in 2010 when the Nova Scotia Environmental Network asked her to give a short presentation to their water caucus about the process of fracking and how it might impact Nova Scotia. What she learned about the impacts and risk associated with fracking inspired her to work with EAC’s energy coordinator Catherine Abreu to form the Nova Scotia Fracking Resource and Action Coalition. Their aim was to educate the public and put pressure on politicians. Initial members included mainly watershed stewardship groups, but quickly grew to include community groups and NGOs across the province.
The first task for NOFRAC was to get a handle on the fracking that was already happening in the province. So they put in freedom-of-information requests and pulled more than 20 binders of information from the Department of Energy and the Department of Environment on the geology, drilling records, water withdrawal applications, communications, proprietary chemicals, and much more.
“It was a bit daunting when we spread all the binders out on the table, but systematically we researched the impact of all this fracking in Nova Scotia, and discovered that a lot of sketchy things had happened,” West recalls.
Among their findings:
• With very little community consultation, five exploration wells were drilled and fracking was used in three of them—“few people remember an open house hosted by the company (Triangle Petroleum) which shared a map or two and talked about little to no potential impacts.”
• The government had approved a wastewater disposal method that involved freezing a pond of formation water and fracking fluid in the winter and then letting the water drain into the woods and groundwater when the pond thawed.
• Wastewater had been taken to several places for disposal, including a municipal facility that did not know the contents of the waste (radioactive, metals, proprietary chemicals, etc).
• Proprietary chemicals were being used that had serious health and environmental risks and impacts associated with them.
• Despite two government directives to clean up the wastewater ponds, neither was adhered to by Triangle Petroleum.
West says that the research, which took two years, revealed that fracking in the province was “largely unregulated and unenforceable.” When their science-based report on the three wells fracked by Triangle Petroleum from 2007 to 2009, “Out Of Control: Nova Scotia’s Experience for Fracking for Shale Gas” (with Barbara Harris of NOFRAC and the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia as lead author) came out in April 2013, it was used by municipal, provincial and federal governments as a case study.
Even before the report’s publication, West and her colleagues were working to get the word out and mobilize public concern.
In the fall of 2011, NOFRAC organized a conference to provide Nova Scotians with independent information on the science of fracking. By this time, the coalition had expanded to more than 50 members, including EAC, Sierra Club, Council of Canadians, local community groups as well as individual members. As chair of the coalition, West began leading monthly conference calls designed to mobilize people concerned about the issue and get them to respond to provincial and government actions. NOFRAC organized online petitions, public rallies, letter-writing campaigns and lobbying MLAs at local constituency offices. She developed a steering committee in January 2012 to guide the organization through strategic planning, which led to the creation of various working groups.
The area of Kennetcook was a centerpiece of Triangle’s plans to frack in Nova Scotia. A Media Coop article “Nova Scotia Fracking Ground Zero: Kennetcook” created a media buzz; in response, Kennetcook residents formed a citizen’s group to oppose fracking in their area. “The greatest and most consistent concern that people had was around water—drinking water, water for crops and livestock, and water for generations to come, “ West recalls.
She says that as a result of this work to mobilize concerned citizens, the NDP government in 2011 launched a one-year internal review of fracking, later extended to 2013. Prior to the October 2013 election, the NDP announced a change to the structure of the review from closed-door review, to an independent review led by an external chairperson.
She says that the government’s review, which was continued by the Liberals after they came to power, was “short, underfunded and not collaborative between panel members.” Even though members of the anti-fracking movement submitted peer-reviewed resources to the review panel, these didn’t make it into early chapters of the report.
League of Ladies
The government held public consultations associated with this review, and early chapters of the report described “largely pro-fracking findings,” according to West. These were not well received by NOFRAC or the communities where fracking could take place.
As part of the review, the panel organized a series of 11 public information sessions in the summer of 2014. The panel underestimated how “informed and enraged” Nova Scotians were on the issue, West says. She met with a group of Halifax-based organizers, including Council of Canadians, PowerShift Canada, LeadNow and the Sierra Club to talk about how to mobilize the public to attend these public meetings. Dubbed the “League of Ladies,” the resulting organizing team used clever and humorous radio spots, ads, posters, banners, a toolkit, t-shirts and social media blasts to publicize the meetings.
“Many of our strategic discussions were around how to use the most consistent concern—water—in our communications strategies,” West says.
Water safety concerns drove high turnout-- more than 1500 Nova Scotians attended the public information sessions. West says that Dr. David Wheeler, chair of the government’s review panel, was shocked by how informed the public was about fracking, and how passionate and entrenched their opposition had become. Residents who came to the sessions undecided about the issue were often swayed by the overwhelming support of their neighbours for a fracking ban.
West says that NOFRAC made sure to try to keep various First Nations in the loop. “First Nations groups are concerned about access to clean water for the next seven generations—something that cannot be assured in the context of fracking,” says West, who worked to build relationships and share resources with Native communities opposed to fracking.
NOFRAC wanted to avoid the violence that had occurred during a First Nations-led protest action in Reston, New Brunswick. It turned out that the public information session scheduled for the village of Tatamagouche was on the same day as a major First Nations gathering there, and this led to a huge turnout of those eager to voice their opposition. But while things got a bit heated, West says that they thankfully remained non-violent.
West and her colleagues deployed a number of tactics to build a popular movement in the province.
Door-to-door canvassing by EAC staff and volunteers helped boost the organization’s membership from 1,500 to 4,000 over a three-year period. When Dr. David Suzuki came to Nova Scotia in 2013 for the release of the film “Climate Change in Atlantic Canada,” and spoke about the perils of fracking during a panel discussion on environmental issues, it caused a doubling of NOFRAC members and a big boost to EAC’s membership. During the public meetings associated with the review, the League of Ladies collected the signatures of 1,400 people for a petition to ban fracking (unfortunately, because the group agreed to share the names collected, they couldn’t be captured by any one organization’s database).
West says that NOFRAC had no way of knowing whether this public support was having any impact on the government’s decision-making process. Although the coalition had been in contact with Andrew Younger before he became provincial energy minister in 2013, they were unable to connect with him or anyone else in government.
West says that the coalition took the high road—“every step the government took, we matched with science, professionalism and politeness”—and this helped build credibility with government and with the public. Ultimately, it contributed to the success of the campaign, as the final report issued by the review panel cautioned against fracking in the Nova Scotia.
It is telling, however, that the government kept West and her colleagues in the dark about the decision to prohibit fracking. They didn't find out about the press conference to announce the government's decision until a journalist, who had received a media alert about the announcement, contacted them.
“He asked how we were going to respond to the announcement, and we politely asked what announcement was he referring to,” West recalls. “It was a magical moment to attend the press conference where the final decision would be made about the past four years of work and to really have no idea how the cards would fall.”
While the work is far from over--Nova Scotia’s fracking ban doesn’t apply to fracking in coal bed methane, and there is uncertainty around the fact that research and testing activities are exempt from the legislation—West is able to reflect back on several lessons she learned during the anti-fracking campaign:
• Water is a great way to get people involved with broader energy concerns. Still, because the fracking campaign was very focused around the safety of the water supply, they often didn’t link to the larger fossil fuel and energy policy discussions. That will change as West and Catherine Abreu are working to have more of the goals of NOFRAC and EAC’s anti-fracking campaign aligned with the Fossil Free 2030 campaign in Nova Scotia.
• Share the work to avoid burnout. West began as chair of the coalition, but as it grew, a steering committee emerged to share responsibilities and leadership of the group.
• Be as informed as possible.
• Connect with First Nations earlier on.
• Engage young people. The League of Ladies had fun having young volunteers willing to stay up late to get the job done.
photo credit: Stephanie Merrill