breathing time for northern yukon

There have been two little-noticed actions in Canadian northern gas development. Both have big implications for the Yukon.

There have been two little-noticed actions in Canadian northern gas development.

Both have big implications for the Yukon.

The first was the announcement of a massive natural gas find in northeastern British Columbia centered in the Horn River Basin, just south of the British Columbia and Northwest Territories border. Initial estimates of the amount of gas are 6 trillion cubic feet.

That is the same amount that is known to exist in the Mackenzie Delta.

One big advantage the Horn River Basin has over the Delta is that it’s already immediately adjacent to pipelines, which could export the gas to market.

There is no need to construct an $8-billion pipeline to get this natural gas out.

That is the rough cost to build just the Mackenzie Gas Pipeline, and not the cost of developing the gas fields in the Mackenzie Delta.

The second gas development with implications for the Yukon resulted from four wildcat wells drilled in the Mackenzie Delta region over the past two winters.

Actually, lack of results would be more appropriate.

All four wells are allegedly dry, or at least only minor, uneconomic amounts of hydrocarbons were found.

Now the nature of wildcat drilling is that roughly only one in 10 hits a commercially viable gas reservoir.

Still, the optics, if one is a proponent of the Mackenzie Gas Pipeline, to export gas from the Mackenzie Delta do not look good.

A huge natural gas find with easy access to existing infrastructure combined with some dry wells in the Mackenzie Delta does take the hot air out of the pipeline proponents’ position.

This does not mean the end of the Mackenzie Gas Pipeline.

Given current North American demand for natural gas it is more than likely the Mackenzie Gas Project will proceed.

As mentioned, wildcat wells, by their very nature, have a high failure rate.

And the amount of natural gas in the Mackenzie Delta is known from other wells and seismic work. So the gas is there.

The Mackenzie Gas Pipeline project might proceed, just not right now.

The implications for the Yukon regarding all of this could be most interesting indeed.

Currently, Yukon fossil fuel exploration and development is concentrated in the North.

The two main areas of activity are the Eagle Plains region and the Peel Plateau.

Should a major gas find occur, the only realistic and economic way to pipe it out is to construct a lateral pipeline heading east over the Peel and Mackenzie rivers to join with the Mackenzie Gas Pipeline.

But if that is put off a few years, or perhaps longer, it is possible that interest in the northern Yukon could fade.

There is one other region of the Yukon that is known to have gas, and, in fact, it has some producing natural gas wells.

That area is the extreme Southeast Yukon, in a region almost immediately adjacent to the Horn River field.

Known as the Liard Basin, it is part of the Kaska First Nation traditional territory.

With land claims unsettled, the Yukon government has not been putting areas in this region up for bids as part of its oil and gas development philosophy.

But there are provisions within the Yukon Oil and Gas Act, and with the consent of the affected First Nation, to allow oil and gas development to occur in areas where land claims have not been settled.

In the immediate future it would look like there is going to be a lot of pressure to open up the Southeast Yukon to oil and gas exploration, while interest in the northern Yukon diminishes.

That is good environmental news for the North Yukon, where the Yukon government seems to be in a rush to issue as many oil and gas permits as possible before land-use plans are implemented.

A breathing space for this region will allow ecosystems to be properly evaluated and, if need be, protected, without the pressure of the oil and gas development hurrying the process.

It could be very bad news for the Southeast Yukon.

There is no land-use planning in place, nor is their plans in the short term to do any.

Additional environmental pressures on the landscape exist, including a nascent forestry industry and the potential for large-scale mining operations.

Without careful ecological forethought and planning the Southeast Yukon could be in for a very tough environmental time indeed.

Lewis Rifkind is a Whitehorse based part-time environmentalist.