(Editors note: The handwritten notes obtained by APTN National News are posted below the story.)
By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
Days after Elsipogtog Chief Arren Sock demanded Houston-based firm SWN Resources Canada leave New Brunswick, he sat at a hotel conference table with the province’s premier discussing a strategy that would see the company stay and continue its controversial shale gas exploration work, APTN National News has learned.
On Oct 1, during Treaty Day celebrations, Sock demanded the company leave the province within 24 hours. He read out a band council resolution declaring Elsipogtog was taking “stewardship” over all unoccupied Crown lands.
But in a closed-door meeting Monday in Fredericton, Sock and Premier David Alward discussed a timeline to end a blockade targeting SWN machinery and allow the company to finish some of its exploration work, according to three pages of handwritten notes from the meeting obtained by APTN National News.
A Mi’kmaq-led anti-fracking highway blockade in Rexton, NB, has trapped SWN’s exploration vehicles in a compound. The company responded by obtaining an injunction last Thursday to clear the barricades. The threat of impending police action as a result of the court order spurred talks Sunday and Monday between Alward and Sock.
Two of Sock’s advisers confirmed the notes were taken during Monday’s meeting and asked APTN National News not to report their content. They said the notes contained information unknown even to the majority of the band council.
While Sock’s advisers would not say who wrote the notes, they revealed the broad strokes of Monday’s discussion. The conversation with the premier went beyond the blockade and SWN’s immediate exploration work. The two sides discussed the creation of a provincial consultation framework to govern how industry deals with First Nation communities on future energy projects, they said.
APTN National News has decided not to identify the two advisers.
The ongoing blockade on Route 135 sits about 80 kilometres north of Moncton and 15 km northeast of Elsipogtog. The blockade is the latest salvo in a battle against SWN’s shale gas exploration that raged throughout this past summer and led to dozens of arrests.
Mi’kmaq, Acadian and Anglophone residents in the area believe the discovery of shale gas will lead to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and they fear the extraction method poses a threat to the area’s water and environment.
SWN’s injunction against the blockade expires on Oct. 12 and the company’s lawyers have agreed to let the injunction expire as a result of talks between Sock and Alward.
Elsipogtog residents supporting the blockade widely believe Sock is trying to negotiate SWN’s permanent exit from the region and bring an end to any shale gas exploration in the future. But according to the handwritten notes and Sock’s advisers, evicting SWN from the province is not on the table.
“Time is what is needed to settle the volatile situation,” reads one entry in the notes.
The two sides discussed letting SWN finish its seismic imaging exploration work along a section on Hwy 11, which is near the blockade site. In exchange, the company would forgo other work requiring explosives, according to one advisor. SWN currently has a line of geophones stretching for about five kilometres on the highway which is under close surveillance by the company.
“Line 4 abandoned if line 11 is completed,” says one of the lines in the notes.
SWN is also willing to put up with protests against its work if the blockade ends, said one of Sock’s advisers.
“Blockade down, protest continues,” reads one entry in the notes.
The notes also seem to set a possible day for the release of SWN’s trapped vehicles.
“Thursday equipment moved out?” says one the items listed in the notes and numbered “4.”
While the notes do not state which “Thursday” is being referred to, it follows three previous items numbered 1, 2 and 3 with the words “improperly consulted, working group” and “week…time limit Monday to next Wednesday.” The words “improperly consulted” appear in two of the pages of notes.
The advisers would not provide details about the proposed timelines, saying only that the “working group” would be discussing all the items listed in the notes. They said Alward agreed Elsipogtog was not properly consulted before SWN entered its territory.
After Monday’s meeting in Fredericton’s Crowne Plaza Lord Beaverbrook Hotel, Sock and Alward, emerged holding braids of sweetgrass and jointly announced the creation of the working group. Both leaders said they hoped the group’s efforts would lead to the blockade’s peaceful end.
According to the notes, it appears the Sock and his advisers want discussions with the province to include issues such as housing, the creation of a “healing to wellness court,” and a tax agreement on gaming revenues. The items are expected to be part of the working group’s agenda, according to one of Sock’s advisers.
Sock and his advisers appear to have concluded they can’t convince Alward to evict SWN from the province.
“If it’s not SWN, it’s always going to be another company,” said one adviser told APTN National News.
New Brunswick’s Tory government is betting heavily on investments from energy firms like SWN to help turn the province’s moribund economy around. SWN is expected to invest about $47 million into the province by the end of the year. It gave Fredericton $2.4 million in cash shortly after winning a bid to explore 934,000 acres stretching from Richibucto and Bouctouche region, which includes Elsipogtog’s territory, to the southwest. The company was also awarded a license to explore 84,000 hectares in the province’s southeast.
SWN is seeking to renew its exploration licenses which expire next March 31, 2014, and March 31 2015.
The province wants to avoid a repeat of First Nation-led opposition that has dogged SWN’s work. Without the Mi’kmaq, local Acadian and Anglophone opposition would pose little threat to the company’s shale gas exploration. Local non-First Nation residents who frequent the camp readily acknowledge the Mi’kmaq demonstrators gave the resistance teeth.
Sock and Alward have discussed creating a framework defining the “duty to consult” to allow companies like SWN to enter First Nation territories without triggering such fierce opposition. While the framework is specific to the situation in Elsipogtog, advisers claimed it will become the blueprint for the rest of the province, defining how industry deals with First Nation communities.
“There is going to be a historic event come out of this,” said one of Sock’s advisers. “The agreement coming out of this working group is not just going to affect Elsipogotog; it is going to affect how industry comes to the province and how the province and industry comes to First Nation communities.”
Sock’s adviser said the process would involve a referendum preceded by meetings where the company would detail their planned work in the community’s territory.
“Nowhere has this happened before where First Nations and a company in the province have sat down and developed a duty to consult. To define it to the point where a band member who just sits back on welfare will know every detail as long as you go to the meetings,” said the adviser. “You are not going to get spoken for by a corporation in another part of the province…In First Nation communities this is huge…it is going to be how…TransCanada comes in and deals with communities across the province.”
TransCanada is planning a $12 billion, 4,500 kilometre pipeline project to ship up to 1.1 million barrels of Alberta tar sands oil to Quebec and New Brunswick.