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.

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