The Yukon government will ban oil and gas development in the Whitehorse Trough for the next five years, Energy, Mines and Resources Minister Brad Cathers announced Thursday.
Public opposition was “the biggest single factor” in the decision, said Cathers. “A lot of Yukoners have concerns and questions,” he said during a news conference Thursday afternoon.
Conservationists greeted the news with joy and bewilderment.
“I don’t know what to do. I don’t think I’ve ever had an environmental victory,” said Lewis Rifkind, of the Yukon Conservation Society.
“This is amazing and unprecedented. Credit where credit’s due, hat’s off to the government.”
Rifkind expected the territory would allow development in at least some of the 12 land parcels under consideration in the Whitehorse Trough, an area that stretches from Carcross to Carmacks.
“I can’t recall anything like this happening in Western Canada,” said Rifkind.
The Yukon Party’s been bullish about the prospect of tapping natural gas to help address the territory’s looming power shortage.
But Cathers insists that industry’s interest in the Whitehorse Trough caught his government by surprise and that the area will remain off-limits during this government’s term in office.
“The possibility of oil and gas development in the Whitehorse Trough was not and is not part of our plans for meeting the energy needs of Yukoners during this mandate,” said Cathers.
“If a future request were to come forward, we would not be interested in giving it a green light, unless there was a significant shift in public opinion.”
Cathers remains enthusiastic about Northern Cross’ exploration work at Eagle Plains, off the Dempster Highway. The company recently partnered with a big Chinese oil and gas producer.
And Cathers also sees more potential in the southeast corner of the Yukon, where Devon Energy’s Kotaneelee project has produced oil and gas for two decades.
If need be, natural gas could be imported, said Cathers. The territory’s surplus of hydroelectric power is expected to run out soon, as new mines continue to open.
The government will continue its review of its oil and gas regulations. Cathers maintained that the territory would be able to handle new oil and gas development now by imposing tough standards before granting a development permit.
“Our staff are confident that those matters could be dealt with at that stage,” he said.
The company or companies that started the request for postings remains a mystery.
The Yukon’s legislation keeps this secret until a bid is accepted, and Cathers insists that even he doesn’t know who started the process.
Residents who spoke at a string of public meetings held over the past two months overwhelmingly opposed oil and gas development in the Whitehorse Trough.
Many feared the effects of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. It involves blasting pressurized water, chemicals and sand deep underground to extract gas pockets from shale. The practice has been blamed for polluting community water supplies.
Others worried that a highly-populated part of the territory would come to resemble parts of northern B.C. and Alberta, where oil and gas work has fragmented forests, frightened wildlife and polluted the water and air.
“I can’t believe it, isn’t it great?” asked Tagish resident Elke Huber. “I think this is really positive news.”
“I didn’t think they’d go that far,” said Whitehorse resident Don Roberts. “The pressure was hot, eh? I think we made our point.”
Huber and Roberts had planned to hold a public meeting to discuss oil and gas development Thursday night but that was before they knew Cathers was putting the development on hold.
“I think we’ll still have the meeting, and maybe have a party,” said Roberts after he heard the news. “But it’s not over.
“Let’s not let it go away. Now do some planning for how to inform Yukoners about what this really means. Many of us said, ‘This is too fast, too soon.’ I’m not saying we don’t use oil and gas. We do. That’s not the argument. It’s whether it ruins the whole environment, because here, it could.”
The NDP Opposition chimed in, saying the territory has much work left to do.
“If the government was truly listening, they will take proposed changes to the Oil and Gas Act and regulations to Yukoners for a full public consultation,” said Jim Tredger, the party’s resources critic, in a release.
The NDP also wants to see a ban on fracking and the completion of regional land use plans.
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