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New meaning to blowing it

It's a stroke of good luck that the new Liberal regime in Ottawa has a deep desire to throw money at green infrastructure projects, at a time when it would be prudent for the Yukon to confront its looming shortfall.

It’s a stroke of good luck that the new Liberal regime in Ottawa has a deep desire to throw money at green infrastructure projects, at a time when it would be prudent for the Yukon to confront its looming shortfall of renewable electricity.

Naturally enough, our Yukon Party government is taking advantage of this opportunity by… asking Ottawa for hundreds of millions of dollars to build new mining roads. Hmm. This pitch seems particularly tone-deaf, given how the Liberals have indicated that they’re looking for projects that benefit the environment.

Yet this plan, grandly titled the Yukon Resource Gateway Project, is the focus our government has decided to take during face-to-face meetings with their federal counterparts. Meanwhile, if documents obtained by the News are any indication, it doesn’t look like any significant green energy product is on the territory’s list of infrastructure priorities, and Yukon Energy concedes it doesn’t have any shovel-ready plans on hand.

This is a striking departure from the approach taken by a previous Yukon Party regime the last time our federal legislators disgorged money from a green infrastructure fund to help give the economy a boost. That time around, we ended up securing $71 million to help expand the Mayo hydro-electric dam. Admittedly, this project didn’t offer great value for money, adding 10 megawatts at a cost of $120 million, but that never seems to matter much when you are largely spending someone else’s money. On the upside, at least we had something to show from the federal spending spree.

Today, in contrast, it looks like the Yukon lacks plans for any renewable energy project ready to take advantage of the current pool of federal funds. It needn’t be this way. A forward-looking government would have asked Yukon Energy to ensure it had such a plan on hand - particularly once the big-spending Liberals won office in the autumn.

The closest thing to a shovel-ready project that Yukon Energy has is a potential 10-megawatt wind farm that the utility has mulled for the past five years. Unlike a big new hydro project, which would take at least a decade to build, a wind farm could be quickly built and easily expanded. Wind power tends to be fairly pricey, but previous studies conducted by Yukon Energy have suggested a wind farm would produce cheaper electricity than the expansion of the Mayo dam did. (There’s no price estimate for the current project, but earlier plans for a wind farm twice as big were expected to cost $100 million five years ago.) Still, Yukon Energy officials have said before that a federal contribution would probably be needed for this project to make financial sense.

It’s a shame these plans are not a little further along. Yukon Energy is currently looking at two sites - Ferry Hill near Stewart Crossing and Mount Sumanik near Whitehorse. This work was originally supposed to be complete shortly, but seems to have fallen behind schedule. More to the point, there have been no indications that the Yukon Party has egged this project along or called for it to receive federal funds.

To date, the chief accomplishment by Darrell Pasloski’s government on the energy file has been to replace Whitehorse’s aging diesel generators with a new liquefied natural gas plant. It’s hoped that the plant will help encourage a local oil-and-gas industry one day. But, seeing as the one remotely plausible development at Eagle Plains is now bogged down in a court battle with Yukon’s assessors, nobody should expect that local gas will be used to heat homes anytime soon.

Pasloski’s government has always maintained it would begin planning the Yukon’s next big hydro project sometime this term, but last week those plans were put on pause. The sticking point is not a new one for the premier - First Nation opposition.

The Yukon Party had asked the Yukon Development Corporation - the holding company for Yukon Energy - to recommend one or more sites for the territory’s next hydro-electric dams. While this hasn’t actually happened, Brad Cathers, the minister responsible, declared last week that he considers the corporation’s directive to have been met. The reasons for this awkward climb-down seem obvious enough: a territorial election must be held by the autumn, and the governing party doesn’t want to single out a site, knowing that no matter where is picked, somebody will be upset at the thought of ancestral hunting and trapping grounds being flooded, or worried about the impact on fish and wildlife.

Still, the fact that somebody would be upset no matter which site is chosen should have been evident from before the much-ballyhooed Next Generation Hydro project began. Indeed, it’s pretty much the first point that the consultants hired to quarterback the project made to the public. Part of the project’s aim was to warm up First Nations to the idea of becoming business partners with an equity stake in a new hydro project, but worries about the impacts carried the day during public meetings.

That’s not to say that some lessons haven’t been learned from the $2-million exercise. One is that it probably doesn’t make sense to connect our stranded electrical grid to British Columbia. Such a transmission line could help justify a big new hydro project, as any surplus power could be sold to our southern neighbours. But a business study conducted on this possibility concluded it would end up becoming a money pit.

Another conclusion is that a big hydro project may not even be the right solution for the territory’s energy needs. An evaluation concluded that a suite of smaller renewable projects would be nearly as cost-effective. So, in a strange way, the territory’s big exercise in justifying big hydro ended up actually supporting the contention of conservationists that the territory doesn’t actually need a new dam.

Despite this, Cathers maintains the government thinks the environmental impacts of many small energy projects would collectively outweigh one big one. Cabinet now hopes to soften up First Nations through more talks, and if need be revisit other potential sites that didn’t make the shortlist. Well, good luck with that.

There’s real value in having a long-range energy plan. But if it hinges on the Yukon Party’s ability to play nicely with First Nations, we’d probably be far better off concentrating on something that could actually be accomplished, like putting a few new windmills in the ground.