protecting the green flank

Let the conspiracy theories begin. Yukoners were shocked when the Yukon Party government announced it was banning oil and gas exploration in the Whitehorse region for at least the next five years.

Let the conspiracy theories begin.

Yukoners were shocked when the Yukon Party government announced it was banning oil and gas exploration in the Whitehorse region for at least the next five years.

I have to admit that a cynical thought crossed my mind when I heard the news. I dismissed it immediately, but it kept coming back.

“Could it be?” I wondered as I drove to watch soccer at the Canada Games Centre. Then I ran into an old friend in the stands, a veteran of Yukon politics. “You know,” he said, “it couldn’t have come off better if they planned it themselves.”

What he meant, of course, was that the Yukon Party had encouraged someone to apply for drilling rights around Whitehorse. Then they could look reasonable by turning them down. This would protect their exposed green flank, and strengthen their position to attack the real prize: the Peel and Dempster corridor.

It’s a neat idea, but I’ve worked inside the Yukon government and in one of the big departments in Ottawa. The experience left me skeptical about conspiracy theories that require a small group of people to orchestrate an intricate series of events involving multiple organizations, all the while maintaining airtight secrecy. You have to remember that government often has difficulty successfully executing what it publicly claims it is going to do.

Nonetheless, it is great luck for the Yukon Party that someone, whomever they are, applied for drilling rights in the Whitehorse Trough. Napoleon used to say that the main thing he looked for in a general was luckiness, and Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski must be thinking the same thing about oil, gas and mining Minister Brad Cathers right now.

And they seized their opportunity. They didn’t dither (at least not for very long). And they didn’t adopt some kind of compromise like a temporary moratorium or a fact-finding committee. They banned oil and gas exploration until the next election.

They can now portray themselves as “balanced,” a word that appears several times in the “eight principles” they announced about the Peel a few months ago.

The Yukon legislature will now become even more tedious, as ministers start every answer in question period with: “As we showed with our balanced decision-making in the Whitehorse Trough….” (Starting your response with a loaded subordinate clause is a favourite tool for those who write answers for ministers to repeat in question period.)

Judging by quotes in the paper, some environmentalists seemed flummoxed by the Yukon Party move. Some even said that the Whitehorse Trough drilling ban shows how public opinion can influence this government. If you believe that, I have some drilling rights under Second and Main I can sell you, real cheap.

The more likely outcome is that the government will “balance” a ban in the Whitehorse Trough with a gung-ho development approach in the Peel and Dempster corridor.

There is lots on the go up there. There is considerable mining interest, of course, in the Peel watershed. And Northern Cross and its partner China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC, which prefers to be called “C-nook” and not the sneakier-sounding “Snook”) have invested significant time and money north of Dawson that may lead to natural gas production to feed new mines and a potential gas-fired power plant on the Whitehorse grid. Northern Cross and CNOOC would have been annoyed had another exploration company, perhaps backed by a different state-owned Chinese firm, found gas in Whitehorse closer to their proposed clients.

Environmentalists will find it much harder to resist these moves now. It is easier to raise money and whip up enthusiasm for your cause if you have a simple black-and-white narrative. Before the Whitehorse Trough decision, you heard people making the simple argument that the Yukon Party was maniacally pro-development and had to be stopped. Now, the water has been muddied. The Yukon Party can’t be caricatured so easily as the local stooges of George Bush, Halliburton and Big Oil.

In the longer run, the Yukon offshore is also in play. Negotiations are apparently underway in Ottawa about a deal with the Americans on the disputed Beaufort Sea boundary. As with the recent Norway-Russia maritime boundary deal, opening up offshore waters to gas development will be a big part of such an agreement. If such a deal ever happens, the Yukon Party will use its “balanced” decision in the Whitehorse Trough to defend its approach to offshore gas.

There is some grumbling on the right that the Yukon Party shouldn’t have shut down economic development opportunities in the Whitehorse region, not to mention the possibility of us having a nearby, cheap source of gas, like Anchorage and Inuvik do. But they should think instead of Whitehorse Trough gas being a pawn sacrifice to win a bigger gas game.

Instead, pro-gas Yukoners should encourage Cathers to read more Napoleon or, as CNOOC executives might suggest, Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Both have plenty of advice about what to do when your flank is protected and your opponents confused and off-balance. They would know how to capitalize on Brad Cathers’ luck: strike hard and deep, towards the North.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.