One hell of a gamble with the Porcupine caribou

The Yukon Chamber of Commerce is understandably steamed over a big setback that Northern Cross faces in its plans to dig more oil-and-gas wells in Eagle Plains.

The Yukon Chamber of Commerce is understandably steamed over a big setback that Northern Cross faces in its plans to dig more oil-and-gas wells in Eagle Plains.

Assessors, after spending nearly two years mulling these plans, have sent the company back to square one, deeming that they simply don’t have enough information to make a decision about whether to allow the project to proceed. If the company wants to plough ahead, it will now have to go through an expensive, time-consuming executive review, starting at the very beginning.

In a way, this outcome could be worse than an outright rejection, in which case the company could at least hope for the government to overturn the decision and permit the project.

Cue the critics of Yukon’s environmental assessment regime, who maintain that this system is too slow and pokey. They may have a point: it does seem odd that the project review wasn’t punted up to the executive committee at an earlier point, if such a course were needed. But, as things stand, designated office assessors aren’t able to make that call until a project works its way through a long procedural pipeline. That could be worth changing.

However, business leaders may also want to think a little harder about what exactly they are demanding. After all, assessors withheld a decision for a good reason: for lack of any solid information to show otherwise, they fear that the company’s oil-and-gas plans could permanently alter the migration route of the Porcupine caribou herd, making the animals far more difficult to hunt. That would have a profound, wrenching impact on northern aboriginals who consider hunting the herd a central part of their culture. “It could lead to the permanent destruction of what I hold most closely to my heart,” is how one Vuntut Gwitchin citizen put it to assessors.

What’s the likelihood of the caribou dramatically altering their migration route? How long would such a change last? What could be done to minimize the risks? To these and other questions, assessors concluded the answer is that nobody really knows. Given this paucity of information, it would be one hell of a gamble to proceed.

While oilmen have been drilling around Eagle Plains since the late 1950s, and nearly 40 wells currently exist, Northern Cross’s new plans would introduce an unprecedented level of development. The company plans to drill 20 new exploratory wells across an area of about 700 square kilometres. During testing that could last up to two years, up to 2 million cubic feet of gas could be flared daily. Work would not stop if caribou were nearby.

It’s fairly well understood how non-migratory caribou herds behave in the face of such disturbances, but that’s not the case with the wide-roving Porcupine herd, which travels more than 1,000 kilometres in its annual migrations. The odds are even each winter that the Porcupine herd will cross Eagle Plains, as a natural migration corridor that straddles the Porcupine and Peel drainages. It’s feared that a big boost in oil-and-gas exploration could lead the herd to abandon this route and stay clear of this area, along with the nearby Dempster Highway, which many hunters today depend upon to approach the caribou.

These concerns are not without their ironies, given how the Dempster was built precisely for the purpose of encouraging resource extraction projects, rather than making it easy to shoot caribou. But until such concerns are allayed, it’s hard to imagine Northern Cross receiving an eventual green light from any government for exploration at the scale they propose. First Nation opposition will be a show-stopper.

It seems like the company could have done more on the diplomatic front to manage these worries. Assessors describe the company’s response to questions about how First Nation hunting practices will be affected as “cursory.” The Porcupine Caribou Management Board also says it was never approached, and that it could have shared relevant information if it had been.

It also seems clear that the Yukon Party government, which has been a vocal proponent of developing an oil-and-gas industry in the territory, and has touted the Northern Cross project in particular as holding promise, could have done more to put these fears to rest by ensuring environmental baseline data and industry guidelines are in place.

Laying this groundwork has been a stated priority of the government, according to recent annual reports on the implementation of the North Yukon Land-Use Plan. (That’s the only regional land-use plan that’s been completed, and one signed by the Yukon Party, as the government loves to note.) But, more than six years after the plan was signed, assessors found they still didn’t have baseline data to help them understand how the herd would be impacted by oil-and-gas development. Nor has the government yet produced best management practices for oil-and-gas work near the Porcupine herd.

This isn’t to say that nothing is being done. In one study, government researchers have put GPS collars on caribou to see how they respond when they approach disturbed areas. In another, motion-triggered cameras have been used to track wildlife activity along roads and cutlines. A hodge-podge of information about industrial disturbances in the area is being cobbled together. But it seems this work hasn’t yet led to clear conclusions that could be used by oil-and-gas proponents or assessors. It is strange, to say the least, that a government as bullish as the Yukon Party is about the oil-and-gas industry hasn’t pushed harder to ensure this groundwork was laid by now.

Another missing piece of the puzzle – also identified as a priority in land-use planning annual reports – is to craft an access management plan to help guide oil-and-gas companies working in caribou habitat. Yet this task had until lately been put on pause by the Vuntut Gwitchin until the long-running court battle over the Peel watershed is resolved, which of course shows no sign of ending. So the premier’s pie-in-the-sky promises that a mega-mine will be built in the far-flung Peel may end up helping derail a far more plausible plan to pump oil and gas from the ground near the Dempster.

Correction

An earlier version of this editorial stated that the Vuntut Gwitchin have delayed access management plans for Eagle Plains until the Peel watershed case is resolved. This information, drawn from the most recently published report on the North Yukon Regional Land Use Plan, is out of date, according to the First Nation. In January, the parties agreed to restart this process. We’re sorry about any confusion.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The Many Rivers Counselling and Support Services building in Whitehorse on March 28, 2019. Three people who sat on Many Rivers’ board immediately before it closed for good say they were relieved to hear that the Yukon RCMP has undertaken a forensic audit into the now-defunct NGO’s financial affairs. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Former Many Rivers board members relieved to hear about forensic audit, wonder what took so long

Three people who sat on Many Rivers’ board immediately before it closed… Continue reading

Whitehorse General Hospital in Whitehorse on Feb. 14, 2019. The Yukon Employees’ Union and Yukon Hospital Corporation are at odds over whether there’s a critical staffing shortage at the territory’s hospitals. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
YEU, Yukon Hospital Corp. at odds over whether hospitals are understaffed

YEU says four nurses quit within 12 hours last week, a claim the YHC says is “inaccurate”

Two former Whitehorse Correctional Centre inmates, Ray Hartling and Mark Lange, have filed a class action against the jail, corrections officials and Yukon government on behalf of everyone who’s been placed in two restrictive units over the past six years. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Class action filed against Whitehorse Correctional Centre over use of segregation

Two former Whitehorse Correctional Centre inmates have filed a class action against… Continue reading

asdf
WYATT’S WORLD

Wyatt’s World for Oct. 21, 2020

Movie poster for <em>Ìfé,</em> a movie being shown during OUT North Film Festival, which includes approximately 20 different films accessible online this year. (Submitted)
OUT North Film Festival moves to virtual format

In its ninth year, the artistic director said this year has a more diverse set of short and feature films

Triple J’s Canna Space in Whitehorse on April 17, 2019, opens their first container of product. Two years after Canada legalized the sale of cannabis, Yukon leads the country in per capita legal sales. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon leads Canadian cannabis sales two years after legalization

Private retailers still asking for changes that would allow online sales

A sign greets guests near the entrance of the Canada Games Centre in Whitehorse on June 11. The city announced Oct. 16 it was moving into the next part of its phased reopening plan with spectator seating areas open at a reduced capacity to allow for physical distancing. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
CGC reopening continues

Limited spectator seating now available

During Whitehorse city council’s Oct. 19 meeting, planning manager Mélodie Simard brought forward a recommendation that a proposed Official Community Plan amendment move forward that would designate a 56.3 hectare piece of land in Whistle Bend, currently designated as green space, as urban residential use. (Courtesy City of Whitehorse)
More development in Whistle Bend contemplated

OCP change would be the first of several steps to develop future area

asdf
EDITORIAL: Don’t let the City of Whitehorse distract you

A little over two weeks after Whitehorse city council voted to give… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Northwestel has released the proposed prices for its unlimited plans. Unlimited internet in Whitehorse and Carcross could cost users between $160.95 and $249.95 per month depending on their choice of package. (Yukon News file)
Unlimited internet options outlined

Will require CRTC approval before Northwestel makes them available

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse. Yukon’s territorial government will sit for 45 days this sitting instead of 30 days to make up for lost time caused by COVID-19 in the spring. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Legislative assembly sitting extended

Yukon’s territorial government will sit for 45 days this sitting. The extension… Continue reading

asdf
Today’s mailbox: Mad about MAD

Letters to the editor published Oct. 16, 2020

Most Read