Southwestern Resources Canada, a Southwestern Energy Co. (SWN) subsidiary, has decided to halt seismic testing in New Brunswick earlier than expected to protect its workers after a wave of thefts, vandalism and protests in the province by opponents of hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

Tom Alexander, the subsidiary’s general manager, told NGI’s Shale Daily that the protests would not derail the Houston-based company’s plans to explore for natural gas in the emerging Frederick Brook Shale.

“We have suspended our 2-D seismic operations for 2011,” Alexander said Tuesday, adding that the program was about 80% complete. “We did continue with our geochemical program and that is now 100% complete. We are continuing with our air photography and LIDAR [light detection and ranging].”

Alexander said SWN was halting the seismic testing about three or four weeks earlier than planned because the company was concerned for the safety of its workers in the face of the escalating protests. He said crews would return to the province next year to complete the testing.

“The safety of our crews, personnel, equipment and the public is paramount,” Alexander said. “We will not compromise on that. Due to the fact that there have been some personal assaults, continued threats of violence and the destruction, theft and vandalism of equipment, we just thought it would be best to suspend operations for now.”

Protesters formed a blockade around several SWN trucks with seismic equipment just north of Stanley, NB, on Aug. 9 (see Shale Daily, Aug. 15). The blockade was voluntarily lifted the next day after a local legislator agreed to meet with the protesters, who then moved on the provincial capital at Fredericton.

Alexander said theft and damage to seismic equipment — which actually belongs to Geokinetics Inc., SWN’s seismic contractor this year — totaled tens of thousands of dollars. “We’re still hopefully going to recover some equipment that had been stolen or pitched in the woods,” he said, adding that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) “has been notified on each and every account.”

RCMP spokesman Cpl. Yann Audoux told NGI’s Shale Daily on Tuesday that he “could not confirm or deny reports” that the Mounties were investigating assaults, thefts and acts of vandalism against SWN’s operations in the province, but did confirm that 52-year-old Simon Nash of Durham Bridge, NB, was arrested on Aug. 18.

According to Audoux, Nash was arrested after officers pulled him over for a traffic stop in Taymouth, NB, and after searching his vehicle discovered seismic testing equipment. Other media sources in Canada reported that the equipment had been stolen from SWN. Nash was charged with theft in excess of C$5,000 and appeared in Fredericton Provincial Court on Monday for a bail hearing. He was released on bail and is scheduled to return to court on Sept. 7 to enter a plea in the case.

The RCMP is also investigating an incident that occurred around July 23-24, where one or more persons vandalized seismic testing equipment near Cumberland Bay, NB.

Jim Emberger, spokesman for the Taymouth Community Association’s Environmental Action Committee, told NGI’s Shale Daily that Alexander’s allegations were mischaracterizing the anti-fracking movement, which he said was peaceful.

“We don’t know where [the allegations] came from,” Emberger said Tuesday. “He suddenly just started saying them. The blockade and the most recent demonstration were both well attended by the RCMP, so we know that there was no violence or intimidation there. I know that at the demonstrations there has been absolutely no problem, but outside of them I don’t know.

“I speak daily to people from all over the province. We’ve been e-mailing each other back and forth and nobody anywhere has any clue about any violence or any kind of intimidation.”

Asked if Nash was a member of any group opposed to fracking, Emberger said, “He’s never been to any of our planning sessions or demonstrations. He pretty certainly is not associated with any group. Whether he was just doing [the theft] out of pure vandalism or he has an ax to grind, I don’t know.”

But Emberger said his group and others were concerned that Alexander’s allegations were being widely accepted as fact by the media, while the message from environmentalists denying any connection to violence and vandalism wasn’t being well reported. “It’s a bit of an uphill battle,” Emberger said. “It is a concern to us and we are trying to do everything we can to sway people from the notion that we had anything to do with this.”

SWN has a license to perform seismic testing in the province. During an earnings call on July 29, CEO Steve Mueller said SWN was on schedule to drill at least one well in New Brunswick in the second half of 2012. But Alexander said those plans could now be delayed.

“We’ll have to analyze the seismic information that we did acquire,” Alexander said. “Since damage and theft of equipment has been ongoing almost since the program began in June, there are gaps in some of the data. Until we actually look at it all and interface it with the geochemistry surveys that we did last year, we just won’t know what the 2012 program will look like.

“But I want to emphasize that we’re committed to honoring and completing our exploration program here in New Brunswick.”

Environmental groups began pressuring New Brunswick for a moratorium on fracking after neighboring Quebec enacted one in March, but New Brunswick Premier David Alward and others have stood firm (see Shale Daily, March 14; March 10). Quebec is allowing fracking to continue on a limited basis while it conducts a two-year environmental assessment on shale gas.

New Brunswick enacted tougher shale gas regulations on June 23, including requiring companies to disclose the chemical contents of fracking fluids (see Shale Daily, June 24). The government’s move prompted the citizens group Citizens for Responsible Resource Development to reverse its calls for a moratorium (see Shale Daily, July 11).