Fossil fuelling Yukon’s economy is a bad idea

The Yukon Chamber of Commerce and the Yukon government have embarked on aggressive yet friendly-seeming marketing campaigns promoting a Yukon oil-and-gas industry, playing to our comfortable way of life and the expectations we have of energy.

The Yukon Chamber of Commerce and the Yukon government have embarked on aggressive yet friendly-seeming marketing campaigns promoting a Yukon oil-and-gas industry, playing to our comfortable way of life and the expectations we have of energy.

Last month, the chamber wrote an op-ed casually describing all the ways we use and, apparently, will always use fossil fuels. It then launched a “Fueling Yukon’s Economy” website and publicity campaign at a workshop attempting to make the case for a local oil-and-gas industry, including drilling and refining.

The chamber contracted a local business proponent to drill down into the numbers for Yukon’s current fossil-fuel consumption, and predict future demand for oil and gas in the territory.

The study showed that Yukon’s economy “leaks” $200 million each year through the purchase of imported oil and gas from Alberta, Alaska and elsewhere. Much of the energy we use in the Yukon comes from burning fossil fuels – mostly for heating and transportation. But the government and the chamber’s proposed solution – to turn the Yukon into a petroleum producer – is misguided, not viable, and focuses on the wrong problem.

What is missing from energy dialogue in the Yukon is the understanding and agreement that burning fossil fuels is the problem, not that we import them.

Exploration, extraction, processing, refining, transporting and burning fossil fuels pollutes the land, water and air, and destabilizes the climate. Mainstream media reports on the harmful effects of oil-and-gas development on living things, water supplies and communities. Daily, we hear about the accelerating frequency of devastating and costly extreme climate events like floods, fires, droughts and storms – all made worse by our addiction to oil and gas.

Yukon Energy’s CEO was the first brave soul to bring up climate change at the Fueling Yukon’s Economy workshop. Unfortunately, the buzz-killing, off-message consideration of climate change was promptly parked.

To its credit, the Yukon Chamber invited the Yukon Conservation Society to the workshop, and we strongly believe that climate change is an essential part of energy conversations.

Escalating forecasts for oil-and-gas use in the Yukon may be required for industry and business types seeking investment from the bank or government to pay for a refinery and associated oil-and-gas infrastructure and training (which would be hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars).

But the chamber’s future projections for ever-increasing fossil-fuel consumption in the Yukon are not just dismal, they are oblivious to global realities and trends.

Following the COP21 Paris Agreement last December, Canada’s first ministers, including the Yukon’s Premier Darrell Pasloski, signed the Vancouver Declaration. Leaders agreed to ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to meet or exceed Canada’s 2030 target of a 30 per cent reduction below 2005 levels.

Local fossil-fuel champions tout the reduction in emissions from eliminating trucking oil and gas to the Yukon as an environmental win. But greenhouse gases from trucking fossil fuels are a small percentage of the lifecycle emissions. Any greenhouse-gas reductions achieved in avoided trucking would be swamped by the increased emissions associated with drilling, processing and refining. Aside from a bigger carbon footprint, a local oil-and-gas industry would result in a sprawling industrial footprint on the landscape – if a refinery was built here that needed 5,000 barrels of crude a day to keep it going.

The economics of a Yukon refinery are dubious. Even ignoring a reduced Yukon market for fossil fuels in an energy-smarter future, the poor returns and financial costs to shackle our economy to a dying (yet fledgling) industry would be crippling. Even if we managed to extract and refine liquid fuel products by sacrificing both the environment and better opportunities, the majority of the profits (if oil prices recover before we stop burning it so eagerly, that is), would likely leak to CNOOC – the Chinese government-owned majority shareholder of Northern Cross Yukon.

It is true we are dangerously reliant on fossil fuels. And yes, we will continue to burn oil and gas during our transition to a post-carbon economy and clean energy future. But dragging down that urgently needed transition and sacrificing some of the best caribou habitat and cleanest water in North America to try to cash in on a failing industry is irresponsible and unwise. The Yukon has vast renewable energy potential to create local business and economic development opportunities while displacing fossil fuels, so pushing a local oil-and-gas industry to excuse and prolong our fossil-fuel use is not necessary.

The Yukon can be a northern leader in building a new economy based on reducing, not increasing, greenhouse-gas emissions. We can reduce our energy demand and replace imported oil and gas with local renewable energy from wind, wood, water and the sun, to empower communities, strengthen our energy security and resilience, diversify our economy, create good jobs, and protect our water, climate and environment.

Let’s start a new conversation: Empowering Yukon’s Economy, where we conserve rather than squander our natural capital, we live within our means, create jobs with a bright future – respecting ecological limits and community values. Fossil-fuelling Yukon’s economy will not help us meet any of those worthy goals.

Anne Middler is an energy analyst with the Yukon Conservation Society.

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