Yukon political parties in 98.7 per cent agreement on fracking

Now that oil-and-gas minister Scott Kent has announced the Yukon government's response to the legislature's fracking committee recommendations, we know exactly where all the parties stand.

Now that oil-and-gas minister Scott Kent has announced the Yukon government’s response to the legislature’s fracking committee recommendations, we know exactly where all the parties stand.

On the left, the NDP and Liberal caucuses want 100 per cent of the Yukon to be off-limits to fracking, or non-conventional oil and gas as it is more politely called.

Across the political chasm on the right, the Yukon Party wants a mere 98.7 per cent off-limits, and that’s only if local First Nations decide not to use their new veto powers recommended by the committee.

So, despite the rhetoric about anti-development lefties and fiendishly frackophile righties, there is actually not much to separate the parties.

All of them would be to the left of most of the governments in our region. In fact, it looks like they are even left of the BC NDP. During the 2013 BC election, the BC NDP leader at the time, Adrian Dix, summed up the BC NDP position as: “We don’t support a moratorium on hydraulic fracking.”

Fracking is of course already permitted in B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan. Two weeks ago the N.W.T. published proposed regulations to permit fracking that could come into effect as early as August. And with Alaska’s huge budget deficit, our neighbours to the west are keen to drill pretty much anywhere, any time.

Not only has Barack Obama not banned fracking, but his administration recently reaffirmed Arctic Ocean drilling rights off Alaska. Obama’s energy secretary said the Arctic is “an important component of the administration’s national energy strategy.”

If you think fracking is risky, you definitely won’t like drilling in the Arctic Ocean.

Our territorial parties have also staked out more extreme views than their national cousins. The national NDP or Liberal leaders have not come out, as far as I can tell, with any commitments to use federal powers to ban fracking. In 2014, the Council of Canadians asked both Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau if they would commit to banning fracking if elected, and neither gave an answer that satisfied the council.

So most of the Yukon is off-limits. Even if drilling occurs in the 1.3 per cent earmarked by the Yukon Party in the Liard basin in the extreme southeast, I wonder how many Yukon businesses and workers will be involved. Yukon highways don’t even go there, and it will most likely be served out of Fort Nelson.

And while conventional oil and gas is supposedly still permitted, time will tell if parties that have come out so strongly against non-conventional energy production will support conventional production. It’s sort of like saying you are in favour of mining, but dead set against open pit or heap leach mines. Many of the arguments used against fracking also apply to conventional energy, including environmental footprint, drilling through aquifers, methane releases and so on.

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way for Yukon oil and gas.

Back in 1998, when the Yukon received devolved oil and gas powers from the feds, the idea was that a well-regulated oil and gas industry would eventually play a role in the Yukon economy. Fracking existed when oil and gas was devolved, although it had not achieved its current notoriety.

This would include generating jobs for Yukoners, business opportunities for our companies and royalty revenues for government. This idea has been shared by all three parties that have governed the Yukon since then, with significant negotiations with Yukon First Nations along the way. We have invested a lot of time and money in YESAB and other regulatory agencies to handle oil and gas applications.

That 1998 deal was negotiated by the NDP government of the day along with the federal government and Yukon First Nations. The NDP led the first land dispositions in 1999, involving Anderson Resources and about 80,000 hectares around Eagle Plains.

The Liberal government of the early 2000s also did some land dispositions, as did the Yukon Party governments following.

In theory, low oil and gas prices and the lull in investment in North America means that exploration companies are not banging on the door asking for permits, and that we have time to study the topic further. But with 98.7 per cent of the territory off limits and 100 per cent having a First Nation veto not found in neighbouring regions, I wonder how many companies will want to invest in early-stage exploration so they are ready to go when prices go up again.

Oh well. If your kids are done school and looking for a well-paid job, you can always tell them to try the mining industry and see if they are hiring these days.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist show or Twitter @hallidaykeith