HALIFAX — Alberta-based AltaGas has abandoned its plan to create huge salt caverns north of Halifax to store natural gas, saying the Alton Gas storage project is no longer part of its business focus.
The decision came Friday, more than 13 years after construction started on the ill-fated project in central Nova Scotia.
AltaGas confirmed it will decommission the site near Stewiacke, N.S., because the company had shifted its priorities since 2018, when it sold its interest in the Halifax-based natural gas utility Heritage Gas Ltd. The utility would have been the main customer for the caverns.
"The project has received mixed support, challenges and experienced delay," AltaGas said in a statement.
The company had argued the storage caverns were needed to to assure a steady supply of natural gas in the colder months when peak demand can lead to supply shortages and price spikes. And it went to great lengths to try to prove the project was environmentally sound.
Nova Scotia's natural resources minister, Tory Rushton, said the company's announcement came as a surprise.
"Any time a business does leave the province of Nova Scotia it's disappointing," Rushton said Friday. "But at the end of the day, this is a business decision (and) ... I certainly can't speculate on why the company made the decision."
The minister said the end of the cavern project would likely have an impact on the province's natural gas supply, but he said other companies would likely step forward.
AltaGas had planned to build up to 15 caverns about a kilometre underground near Alton, N.S., and then link them with the nearby Maritimes and Northeast natural gas pipeline, about 60 kilometres north of Halifax.
The project, however, faced strong opposition from Indigenous protesters and their allies, not to mention a string of court actions.
The $130-million development had been largely on hold since 2014, when Mi'kmaq activists started a series of protests that culminated two years later in the creation of a year-round protest camp at one of the work sites.
Those opposed to the project had long complained about the company's plan to remove large, underground salt deposits by flushing them out with water from the Shubenacadie River, about 12 kilometres from the cavern site. The plan also called for dumping the leftover brine into the tidal river, where it would flow into the Bay of Fundy.
Mi'kmaq elders said the brine would pollute the 72-kilometre waterway, which has been central to the Indigenous population for 13,000 years.
On the "Stop Alton Gas" Facebook page, supporters were ecstatic to hear the project was dead. "Yes!!!" said one post. "Leave our river alone. Thanks to all water protectors for your hard work." The Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs issued a statement thanking those who had taken a stand against the project. "Today is a good day for the Shubenacadie River and for the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia," it said.
The project had received environmental and industrial approvals, including two environmental assessments and an independent third-party science review.
Before the project was shelved, AltaGas said the brine solution would have been pumped into the river twice a day at high tide, over a two- to three-year period. The company said the brine would be hard to detect in the river. The peak release on each tidal cycle would have been approximately 5,000 cubic metres, which would have mixed in with four million cubic metres of brackish tidal flow.
In February 2019, after years of delays, the federal government said it would regulate the project. Environment and Climate Change Canada said the new rules would be aimed at managing potential threats to fish, fish habitat and human health.
Two months later, three women described as grassroots grandmothers were arrested at the construction site near the river and later charged with contempt for ignoring a court injunction. And in March 2020, a Nova Scotia judge decided the provincial government had to conduct further talks with the Mi'kmaq before the project could proceed. The judge said the Crown's previous consultations with the Sipekne'katik First Nation were insufficient.
In the end, the company decided to decommission the project.
"In the coming weeks and months, we will be discussing next steps related to decommissioning the project with regulators at the provincial and federal governments, the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia and other key stakeholders," the company said in a statement Friday.
The decommissioning will involve capping three wells that were drilled for development into caverns. As well, a diverted section of the Shubenacadie River will be repaired.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 22, 2021.
— With files from Keith Doucette
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said that in March 2020, a judge ordered Alton Gas to conduct more consultations with the local First Nation. In fact, the judge ordered the provincial government to conduct more consultations with the First Nation.