The paradox of what happens when an irresistible force hits an immovable object has fascinated philosophers for millenia.
We have engineered a new example here in the Yukon: what happens when our relentlessly growing need for renewable power hits the solid, multi-layered mass of Yukon governance?
Our growing need for renewable power is well known. Our population grew a stonking 2.7 per cent last year. New houses are predominantly electrically heated. Electric vehicles are so popular there are months-long waiting lists.
As for our love affair with diesel-generated electricity, the carbon price is scheduled to keep rising and the federal Clean Electricity Regulations call for Net Zero electricity by 2035. That’s barely more than a decade away, a blink of an eye in terms of both grid planning and Yukon governance negotiations. Northern grids and small generating stations like we use are exempt from the 2035 requirements for now, but we shouldn’t count on that forever.
On the governance side, the Yukon system has been flexing its muscles - or whatever immovable objects do to display their immovability.
In the legislature, MLAs recently debated what would happen when board appointments expired earlier this month at the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board (YESAB). That would have left the YESAB board with fewer than the three members it needs for quorum, and therefore unable to make important decisions about important projects.
The seven-member YESAB board is appointed via a complicated tripartite process involving the feds, the territorial government and the Council of Yukon First Nations. Governance enthusiasts and insomniacs can read all about it in a handy 13-page YESAB Governance and Structure primer on the YESAB website.
Glaciers get a lot of bad press for being slow. But at least glaciers never lose quorum. “Glacial pace” implies continued movement, not complete stasis.
Premier PIllai told the legislature about the high-level political meetings between our levels of government, complete with follow up meetings by officials. The crisis was resolved with the last minute reappointment of two board members, with the other three vacancies to be filled later.
Note that this high-level summitry was not to get a major project in the public good approved, but just to get enough people appointed so YESAB’s board can hold more official meetings.
Around the same time, Maria Benoit, the Haa Shaa Du Hen or Chief of the Carcross / Tagish First Nation, issued a statement saying that “C/TFN will not continue to participate and agree to projects within the transboundary areas of our traditional territory until there is a definitive solution by way of agreed transboundary delineations and clear and agreed upon mitigation of impacts.”
The statement refers to the “multitude of development proposals that have been initiated by Crown, territorial, private and Indigenous entities respecting lands and resources within C/TFN’s traditional territories in both Yukon and northern British Columbia.”
Included in that multitude of proposals are major projects that are critical parts of the Yukon’s plans for its future renewable electrical grid, such as the Atlin Hydro Project, ATCO transmission line upgrade, BC Hydro Inter-Connect, Southern Lakes Enhanced Storage Project and Moon Lake energy storage.
Meanwhile, the Taku River Tlingit First Nation (TRTFN) of Atlin, British Columbia is following up its 2016 victory in the Yukon Supreme Court over its transboundary rights into the Yukon. TRTFN’s map of its traditional territory covers areas in B.C. such as Tutshi Lake and the Skagway road, as well as areas in the Yukon up to Jake’s Corner including Little Atlin Lake and much of Tagish Lake. These areas overlap with the already overlapping traditional territories of Yukon First Nations.
The TRTFN government website has updates as of September 2022 for citizens on its ongoing transboundary negotiations with the Yukon government. As covered in the Yukon media earlier this year, this includes proposals to transfer fee-simple ownership of 1,100 hectares called the Áashú Lands at the north end of Atlin Lake.
At the same time, the B.C. government says that negotiations with C/TFN over its transboundary claim into B.C. is in “Stage 4 - Agreement-in-principle negotiations.”
This politically complex Yukon-B.C. boundary zone is the area where the Yukon government and its government-owned utility Yukon Energy plan flagship power projects. The acting president of Yukon Energy spoke in the legislature last week and ran through the list of major projects unlikely to be powering your heat pump any time soon.
Take the Atlin Hydro project. It and the powerlines to get the electricity to Whitehorse pass through the overlapping jurisdictions and traditional territories of seven governments with both resolved agreements and unresolved negotiations: B.C., Carcross/Tagish First Nation, federal, Kwanlin Dün First Nation, Ta’an Kwäch’än Council, Taku River Tlingit First Nation and Yukon. To that you can add the involvement of quasi-independent agencies such as YESAB and the Yukon Utilities Board.
So, what about the immovable object and the irresistible force?
Yukon governance is not immovable; but it is slow. The interests of all seven governments are legitimate and often constitutionally protected, so continued work on negotiated settlements is important. This will require compromise by all sides, which will take time. Possibly a lot of time.
Things would be easier if there was just one big, highly profitable project involved. With a multitude of small or marginal projects – Atlin Hydro is already staggering under cost escalations – no one has a big incentive to get to the finish line.
Perhaps some bolder move will be required, such as bundling all the generation and power line projects into a single corporate entity majority-owned by the First Nations involved. On fibre optic infrastructure, Northwestel has shown how creativity in this area can pay off.
In the near term, it will be the electricity projects that prove to be less than irresistible when they run into weighty transboundary governance objects. Faced with long delays to strategic power projects, the Yukon government’s path of least resistance will be simply to lease a few more diesel generators each year. Eventually, they will have to come up with a Plan B involving more power projects away from the transboundary zone. And if too many more years of population growth happen before Plan B gets done, then someone is going to visit Saskatchewan Power and suggest we do what they are planning: get a small nuclear reactor.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He won the 2022 Canadian Community Newspaper Award for Outstanding Columnist.