Fracking Here and There: Following Caleb

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The Canada-New Zealand Fracking Connection
by Damien Gillis l The
I'm down in New Zealand at the moment, filming for a feature documentary involving the unconventional gas industry - particularly the increasingly controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" - which I've been working on for the past year with a fellow Canadian filmmaker.

Why New Zealand?

We came here to follow the main subject of our film, a young First Nations man from the heart of the Canadian (and one could argue global) fracking industry.
Caleb Behn worked for a number of years as a lands manager for several First Nations, addressing both of the major shale gas plays in Northeast BC, where the two sides of his family come from - the Horn River Basin near Fort Nelson and the Montney Shale formation, which extends beneath communities like Hudson's Hope, Dawson Creek and several hundred kilometres East across the Alberta border.

After years of frustration attempting to respond to the deluge of paperwork inundating his offices over proposed seismic testing, well sites, water extraction and disposal, toxic flaring, access roads, security gates and fences and myriad other incursions onto his traditional territory and way of life, Caleb decided to lawyer up. He felt a legal background could help him more effectively represent his people in dealing with industry, so he has been studying at UVic Law for the past several years.

For his final term he decided to venture down to another Victoria University - this one in Wellington, New Zealand - to learn from Maori people facing similar challenges from the oil and gas industry down here.

Maori and concerned citizens in New Zealand have been dealing with the oil and gas industry for a long time; but Caleb's timing couldn't have been more appropriate, as it is only just in the past several years - and particularly the past few months - that fracking operations have really been ramping up. And the parallels between the two countries, as we have been learning quickly, are positively striking.

Perhaps most interestingly, a Canadian company I'd never heard before this week - one TAG Oil, based Vancouver of all places - is on the cusp of a major expansion of fracking operations across the North Island of New Zealand, where Caleb is studying and we're doing most of our filming.

Yesterday, Caleb was invited to speak about his people's experiences with the Canadian unconventional gas industry at packed community forum in the town of Napier, in the Hawkes Bay region on the West Coast of the North Island (watch the national news story on the event here). It was an eye-opener for us to hear from other speakers of the mounting concerns amongst New Zealanders about this Canadian company, which has been operating mostly in the Taranaki region on the other side of the North Island - both onshore and offshore. The company has formed joint ventures with Apache Canada, the Canadian subsidiary of Texas gas giant Apache Corp.

Just in the past several months, TAG Oil has been pursuing "aggressive" (their own words) expansion plans, with seismic testing and exploratory drilling in Hawkes Bay region where the forum was being held. The community gathering heard from a farmer named Sarah Roberts - who has been referred to us by a number of people as the "Erin Brockovich" of New Zealand (a title with which she's uncomfortable), for her wealth of knowledge on the emerging industry and her principled stand against it. Sarah made the journey across the Island from Taranaki, where her farm has been under siege from TAG Oil's operations there. She described to us how the company is flaring fumes over her and her neighbours' dairy farms (milk is New Zealand's biggest export and, along with tourism, the cornerstone of its economy). She also told us how some local farmers have been convinced to take "produced" (the industry's term for contaminated) water from them and dispose of it on their fields a s "fertilizer".

Both Sarah and Caleb's words resonated as a warning to the people of Hawkes Bay of the dangers to come if TAG OIl and Apache Canada are able to expand their operations into that region as they are now planning. Following yesterday's meeting I did some googling on TAG Oil - astonished that I'd never come across this company which is a key player in the emerging New Zealand unconventional gas industry.
While its headquarters are located not a kilometre from my home in downtown Vancouver, at 885 West Georgia St. - in its 10 year history the company has focused almost exclusively on New Zealand. It appears as though the relatively small company secured its foothold by obtaining leases and permits here, then reaching out to the larger Apache Canada to provide the capital and industrial muscle to exploit these resources. TAG, Apache and other shale gas companies clearly have big designs on this small Island state in the South Pacific.

And yet, there's clearly a movement afoot to turn the tide on the industry's expansion. A Maori leader from the Taranaki region Caleb spoke to the other day evinced with tears that it may be too late to save her territory from the impacts of Oil and gas development, but that she hoped in sharing her people's experiences with other New Zealanders, she could help protect them from the same fate. The people of Hawkes Bay took careful note of Caleb and Sarah's words for the same reason. The audience also hear from a young, ambitious Green Party MP and Energy Critic, Gareth Hughes, who has been travelling the country of late, drumming up support for a moratorium on fracking while the government conducts a parliamentary review of the industry.

Already the city of Christchurch has recently passed a local moratorium and other communities are considering following suit. We will be traveling to the South Island in a few days to speak to the people who were instrumental in that strong stand against the industry's planned expansion into their region.  
Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues - especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada's wild salmon.

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