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Two cases where going slow makes a lot of sense

Following the Yukon Chamber of Mines' warning about the slow-as-molasses speed of the territory's regulatory regime, something clearly must be done.

Following the Yukon Chamber of Mines’ warning about the slow-as-molasses speed of the territory’s regulatory regime, something clearly must be done. We propose nothing less than a comprehensive federal review of the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act, involving First Nations, the Yukon government, miners and others affected. Ideally, a committee of federal legislators would visit Whitehorse before changing the law.

Hmm, what’s that? Oh dear. We’ve just been informed that such a review has, in fact, only recently been completed, and that the miners appeared at the time to get pretty much everything they wanted.

This was achieved, you may recall, after a spectacular torching of political capital by the miners’ Yukon Party and federal Conservative allies, who seemed to think it a smart move to introduce some contentious changes late in the game without giving Yukon’s First Nations much warning.

And, after all the hooting and hollering over Bill S-6, it seems that miners still consider Yukon’s regulatory regime to be as dreadful and pokey as it ever was. Well, how awkward.

What, then, to make of the current ruckus over the recent decision by assessors to punt on two significant projects? Well, as tempting as it is to take two events that occurred in close succession and declare them proof of an overarching trend, it may just be that both examples are special cases, and deserve to be treated as such. And given the big concerns raised in both cases, going slow probably makes sense.

Northern Cross finds itself in the frustrating position of considering whether to proceed with an expensive, time-consuming executive review, having been sent back to the start after completing a two-year designated office assessment. The big worry is that the company’s oil-and-gas exploration project may spook the Porcupine caribou herd enough that the animals stop migrating past the Dempster Highway, making the herd much more difficult to hunt. Given the profound cultural importance that the Gwich’in and other northern aboriginals place on harvesting the Porcupine herd, such worries must be taken seriously.

In hindsight, perhaps assessors should have held back the proposal at the early stage of adequacy review. Then again, assessors did badger the company to cough up more information on four occasions. And, had assessors been sticklers at that stage, they would surely have been accused by the chamber today of being a bunch of inflexible nitpickers.

What’s more, it almost certainly wasn’t obvious at the early stages of the review that the fate of the Porcupine caribou herd would become such a contentious issue for the project. That concern only seems to have come into focus during the cut-and-thrust of assessment, when First Nations and government departments weigh in with their worries and the company is able to respond.

In a perfect world, assessors would have recognized the paucity of good information about how the herd would interact with an oil-and-gas project of this size and referred the project to an executive review considerably sooner. But, as things stand, assessors at the designated office level don’t have the power to do this until the end. As we’ve said in this space last week, that seems worth changing.

The Yukon government deserves some blame in all this, too. After all, it signalled after signing the North Yukon Regional Land Use Plan that it would make it a priority to collect baseline data on the Porcupine herd and compile best practices for oil-and-gas companies working near the animals, and yet much of this work remains unfinished. Those missing pieces of the puzzle could have given assessors the information they need to make an informed decision about the project’s risks. Given how the Yukon Party has proclaimed in recent years that it wants to create a local oil-and-gas industry, and has referred specifically to Eagle Plains as a promising spot, this seems like a big oversight.

Perhaps the best way forward for the company would be for it to break up its exploration plans into small enough chunks that it would not raise such big concerns, and hopefully not warrant an executive review. After all, the area has been home to oil-and-gas exploration since the late 1950s - just not at the scope proposed by Northern Cross now.

Then there’s Casino. Nobody should be surprised that a project of such monstrous size would end up being referred to the highest, and until now unused, level of assessment, although the company’s initial claims that it welcomed the decision are about as plausible as someone saying they’re pleased to undergo a root canal.

The decision to send Casino to the panel review certainly could have been done sooner than two years into a review - but it also could have been done later, to buy assessors even more time.

As things stand, the panel review isn’t expected to have much of an impact on the assessment time, but it will result in many public meetings being held on the mine proposal. Remember how the campaign against fracking dominated the series of meetings held about oil-and-gas development in the Whitehorse trough? You can expect the Casino meetings to become similarly heated.

If Casino actually clears Yukon’s regulatory regime, and if the company actually secures $2.5 billion to build the mine - two mighty big ifs - it would profoundly change the territory. It would be by far the biggest mine ever built in the Yukon, dwarfing the Faro mine in size and output.

Its construction, expected to require 1,000 workers over four years, would bring in a flood of Outside labourers. Once built, the mine’s 600-man camp would become one of the territory’s larger communities during the mine’s anticipated 22-year life.

According to an economic impact report produced by Casino, the project would generate $6.4 billion in benefits for the Yukon during its life, as well as $1.8 billion in royalties and taxes.

But the focus of the forthcoming meetings is sure to be how the mine would create a massive environmental liability, with an earthen tailings dam that would stand nearly as tall as the Eiffel Tower. This dam would be expected to last, well, forever. And this is the same dam design that failed not long ago at Mount Polley.

If Casino’s dam similarly failed, it would disgorge massive amounts of acid-leaching crud into waterways that feed into the Yukon River. This, needless to say, would be a catastrophe for the river’s treasured salmon.

So, should we be concerned that Casino is receiving unprecedented scrutiny? Far from it. Instead, we should have been greatly worried if it didn’t.