Oil and gas: who can predict the future?

Andrew Nikiforuk, who writes about oil and gas development for The Tyee, reports this week that the industry's promise to reclaim the boreal forest after mining the tarsands is bogus.

Andrew Nikiforuk, who writes about oil and gas development for The Tyee, reports this week that the industry’s promise to reclaim the boreal forest after mining the tarsands is bogus. According to a new study from the National Academy of Sciences, 64 per cent of the 167,000 hectares of boreal forest currently being stripped to mine for bitumen is irreplaceable peatland.

As Nikiforuk points out, peatlands are “valuable and rare landscapes, which take thousands of years to form, filter water, feed caribou … store carbon, concentrate mercury, recharge groundwater, protect biological diversity and act as flood protection.” Valuable as they are, they’re not going to be reclaimed.

According to plans filed by energy companies, reclamation will consist of “hills topped by plantation forests and … large man-made lakes with toxic waste bordered by shrubs and salty marshes.” The study estimates that destroying the carbon-storing peatlands will release 174 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere creating a carbon debt of $2.6 billion.

Bitumen mining in Alberta’s boreal forest is not going to stop. The provincial economy is utterly dependent on it, and the national economy is not far behind. As oil exports drive up the dollar, the manufacturing sector, already battered by globalization, lies bleeding. Commodities extraction is swiftly becoming the only game on the board.

Would Canada have taken the first steps down this road if the end had been visible? Would we have ventured into the questionable economics of a highly-subsidized, inflationary industry that destroys valuable forest forever and leaves incalculable environmental debt? Possibly. The tarsands have been developed under a series of prime ministers whose idea of vision was quick profit at all costs.

But who knows what the power of an informed public opinion might have achieved? If oil companies had said at the outset: “Our plan is to strip-mine thousands of square miles of forest and create giant tailings ponds, filled with billions of barrels of toxic mine waste and we’re going to consume billions in tax subsidies and create dangerous levels of inflation in the process,” Canadians might have balked.

Here in the Whitehorse Basin we stand at the top of that path, and as usual, we can’t see where it leads. Yukon government officials are currently touring the territory ostensibly consulting the public on the release of oil and gas exploration leases. Many who have attended these public meetings came away feeling more proselytized than consulted. One participant called the process “a travelling road show for the oil industry.”

At Mount Lorne, where I live, the meeting began with the suggestion that natural gas development could be an environmental and economic boon to the Yukon, giving us a local source of energy and cutting down on tanker traffic up the Alaska Highway. During the question and answer period, it became clear that no such business proposal exists. The highest bidder on these leases would be free to haul its entire product to tidewater.

The presenter was also quite clear that his department, which regulates oil and gas, is in the business of attracting the industry so that they’ll have something to regulate. It was reported that at an earlier meeting a government official told the room that there was no way to stop oil and gas development from going ahead. She’s wrong. It can be stopped, now. But let it get started, let it become a mainstay of the local economy, and it’s here to stay.

Richard Corbet, chief operating officer of the oil and gas branch, is confident that the Yukon’s tight regulatory system will protect our environment. At each stage of development, he explained, a new permit is required. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,”

for instance, can’t go ahead without a whole new permit and companies will be required to prove it’s safe.

So Yukoners are being asked to believe that in some distant future, when the oil and gas industry is entrenched in the Whitehorse Basin, the government department that worked to attract them here will pull the plug when they want to frack in order to extend the lives of their drilling operations. To test this proposition, take a look at Alberta today. Imagine a provincial official declaring that the tarsands can’t meet their reclamation claims and will have to be shut down. Sound likely?

It’s true that the Whitehorse area could use a local source of natural gas, and there’s a strong case to be made that we have no right to burn so much energy ourselves while insisting that the pollution stay in someone else’s backyard. But offering leases to the highest bidder is the very worst way to achieve this end. Do this, and in very short order all the gas will be gone and we will be left with only the clean-up bill.

If the government is serious about providing a local source of energy, let it demonstrate this with policy. Instead of opening oil and gas exploration to bids, let’s see a request for proposals to install a refinery and gas lines throughout Whitehorse. Couple that with a total ban on pumping toxic chemicals into the ground – also known as fracking – and then we can talk.

In all likelihood, the industry will not jump at this opportunity. Today, with so much money to be made in regulatory wastelands like Alberta, rational development in the Yukon might not be a profitable venture. Someday the economic circumstances may change, and industry may be willing to develop the Whitehorse Basin’s hydrocarbon reserves safely and responsibly, to local benefit.

Until that day, really, who needs them?

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.