A deep dive into Northern Cross’s dispute with YESAB

Much has been made recently of the Yukon assessment board's controversial decision to bump Northern Cross's oil-and-gas exploration project near Eagle Plains to a higher level of assessment.

Much has been made recently of the Yukon assessment board’s controversial decision to bump Northern Cross’s oil-and-gas exploration project near Eagle Plains to a higher level of assessment.

The Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board is now facing criticism from many quarters.

The Yukon Chamber of Commerce has accused YESAB of having too few resources and too few experienced people.

The Chamber of Mines has said Northern Cross spent an “inordinate amount of time” in YESAB’s review process, and that the process has deteriorated in the last five years.

Even the Yukon government is now saying the assessment process has “wavered.”

And last week, Northern Cross announced it’s seeking a judicial review of YESAB’s decision to refer the Eagle Plain project to executive committee screening, a more rigorous form of assessment that includes more First Nations consultation. The company says assessors didn’t give it a chance to respond to last-minute concerns that were raised about access to the Porcupine caribou herd.

YESAB has refused to respond directly to any of the criticism. But the paper trail generated during Northern Cross’s assessment sheds light on some of the accusations.

Northern Cross has complained that it spent 20 months in environmental assessment, only to be sent back to the start of the review process.

That is true, more or less. But it’s also true that Northern Cross took up about 12 months of that time, putting together the information that YESAB required. And it’s also true that the company submitted its response to YESAB’s fourth information request on the very last day it was allowed to, more than 10 months after the request was issued.

YESAB spokesperson Rob Yeomans said it’s rare for the board to issue four information requests in the first place. Typically, he said, there might be one.

In this case, YESAB sent its first request – a list of 122 questions – to Northern Cross in August 2014. The company responded, but assessors were not satisfied.

For instance, in answer to a question about traffic, Northern Cross had written that the Dempster Highway would be affected by “some amount of traffic increase annually.” Assessors wanted something more specific.

The ball bounced back and forth two more times before YESAB felt it had enough information to move ahead.

In October 2014, the proposal went up for public review. First Nations, environmental groups and the Porcupine Caribou Management Board all made comments expressing concern about parts of the project.

As a result, YESAB issued a fourth information request to Northern Cross in December 2014. This one asked for new information about various issues, including water, wildlife and waste management.

Northern Cross responded in August 2015, but again, assessors said the answers weren’t good enough. The board referred specifically to missing information about caribou.

“There is a lack of consideration of how new access throughout the area will affect hunting pressure on the Porcupine caribou herd,” YESAB wrote.

Once again, Northern Cross submitted more documents, but not until Oct. 30, 2015 – the last day before YESAB would have thrown out the application for taking too long.

The public was then given another chance to comment before YESAB made its decision. On Dec. 10, after the deadline for public input, Northern Cross responded to some of remaining concerns, which included increased access for hunters.

Northern Cross’s argument for seeking a judicial review seems to centre on the fact that the Porcupine Caribou Management Board was allowed to submit comments on Dec. 15, after that public input deadline had passed. It says it wasn’t given a chance to respond.

Yeomans did say that YESAB can issue a new information request to a proponent at any time. In this case, that didn’t happen. “It looks terrible for us … to be trying to continue more and more cycles of information review,” he explained.

But he also said proponents can submit new information of their own accord whenever they want. That didn’t happen either.

A cover letter filed with the PCMB’s submission also indicates that Northern Cross knew the comments were going to be accepted after the deadline.

As to the broader accusations YESAB is facing, concerning resources and efficiency, the board’s annual reports provide some insight.

Federal funding for the assessment board has increased since its inception over a decade ago.

YESAB’s budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year was about $5.2 million, up from about $3.3 million in 2006-07.

There is also little evidence to suggest that assessments have gotten slower. The average assessment took 79 days in 2015, up from 74 in 2011.

The board, however, will go through a period of transition this year. Currently, two of YESAB’s seven board appointments are empty. Four of the remaining members’ appointments are coming up for renewal this summer.

Three board members are nominated by the Council of Yukon First Nations and three are nominated by the Yukon government. The chair is appointed by the federal minister.

Contact Maura Forrest at