Gas interests put ahead of caribou?

t’s business-as-usual for oil and gas in North Yukon despite protests from advocates for the Porcupine caribou.

t’s business-as-usual for oil and gas in North Yukon despite protests from advocates for the Porcupine caribou.

On Wednesday the oil and gas disposition call for work bids closed and with it the controlling interest in 18 parcels of prime oil and gas land — and caribou wintering habitat.

The disposition opened and closed with minimal public outcry, despite the uncertainty over whether the North Yukon land-use plan or the Peel Watershed land-use plan recommend against development in 18 parcels of land covering 6,260 square kilometres in Eagle Plains and 417 square kilometres in the Peel Plateau.

“It was business as usual,” said an initially disappointed Shirlee Frost, who chairs the North Yukon Planning Commission.

Frost’s early intervention on behalf of the commission chopped two blocks off of the bidding plate.

After analyzing the 20 parcels originally up for grabs in April, Frost sent a letter to rights disposition manager Deb Wortley in advance of the May 17 bidding start date.

Frost informed Wortley that the oil and gas branch had included the ecologically sensitive Whitefish Wetlands in two of the parcels included in the oil and gas disposition process.

“We took into account the concerns that were raised by the North Yukon Planning Commission around the Whitefish Wetlands, which are immediately to the north and west of Eagle Plains,” said assistant deputy minister Greg Komaromi in response.

As a result, two parcels were removed from the oil and gas rights disposition and the commission was satisfied.

However, other parties were not.

The Yukon Conservation Society for one was concerned with the size of the Spring 2007 Disposition.

Energy co-ordinator Lewis Rifkind wrote, again to Wortley, that the society was concerned the Yukon government didn’t have “enough capacity” to properly determine which of the requests for proposals should be permitted.

He argued that once the government allows any initial development in one area, it sets a future precedent industry in the area.

“In the recent Northern Cross application in the same region, the company suggested that because of past oil and gas activity and disturbance to the ground there shouldn’t be many objections to new oil and gas activity,” wrote Rifkind.

On April 4, Energy Mines and Resources decided that Northern Cross Yukon could go ahead with road construction and a planned two-year flow test on three gas wells from the 1960s in Eagle Plains, despite protests from First Nations, conservation societies and the federal Environment ministry.

The Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society also sent a letter to Wortley and Minister Archie Lang on April 27, accusing the Yukon government of being driven by industry through the recent disposition process.

CPAWS asked the government to set aside lands of high conservation value until the land use plan is implemented.

In the letter, CPAWS expressed particular concern with impacts oil and gas work would have on the Whitefish Wetlands, the Peel Watershed, the Turner Lake Wetlands and its peregrine falcons, and the declining Porcupine caribou herd.

“In our opinion it is irresponsible to consider industrializing important caribou winter habitat without a plan for protecting important habitat areas and well-being of the herd,” wrote conservation campaigner Mac Hislop.

Additionally, First Nations governments, boards and councils and conservation societies have repeatedly advised the Yukon government to avoid prejudicing land-use planning in the region, Hislop said in a later statement.

CPAWS asked oil and gas companies not to bid on the offered oil and gas blocks in a June 21 joint statement with Yukon Conservation Society and Being Caribou.

“By targeting the herd’s winter range for oil and gas development, the Yukon government contradicts its commitment to protect the herd,” said Erica Heuer of Being Caribou.

There is a conflict between the caribou habitat and the 18 proposed oil and gas development blocks, said North Yukon senior planner Shawn Francis.

“The question is: Is it going to be significant and insurmountable?”

Eagle Plains is part of the Porcupine caribou herd’s winter range, but the planning commission determined with radio collar data that Eagle Plains is used much less intensively by the herd than adjacent areas such as the more northerly Richardson Mountains.

Areas that see higher caribou use figure more prominently as conservation zones in the drafted land use plan. Eagle Plains has been set aside as of primary interest to oil and gas resource development.

“If we do it (development in Eagle Plains) right, the direct habitat-related impacts shouldn’t be too bad, but what will be important is managing the access,” said Francis.

“Generally” the lands included in the recent oil and gas dispositions process jived with recommended uses under the draft land use plan, he said.

The matter of the Whitefish Wetlands proved to be what Francis called a “litmus test” of the government’s willingness to conform.

“The fact that they have modified their permit areas to kind of conform with the plan even though it is not an approved plan at this point, I think is a very positive thing,” he said.