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Finger pointing follows Northern Cross setback

The chair of the Porcupine Caribou Management Board says Northern Cross never met with the board to discuss possible impacts of drilling in the Eagle Plain basin on the caribou herd.

The chair of the Porcupine Caribou Management Board says Northern Cross never met with the board to discuss possible impacts of drilling in the Eagle Plain basin on the caribou herd.

Joe Tetlichi said he would gladly have sat down with the oil-and-gas company to share long-term data and discuss how best to protect the herd. But he said Northern Cross never approached him.

“Since they’re the ones that want to do activity on the habitat, on the winter habitat range of the Porcupine caribou, you would think they would send us an invitation to sit down,” he said.

“We’re very disappointed ... (in) their lack of interest in working directly with PCMB to address caribou management concerns.”

Last week, the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board sent Northern Cross’s proposal back to the drawing board by referring it to executive committee screening, a higher level of assessment. Northern Cross must now decide whether or not to resubmit a proposal.

In its report, YESAB said it was “unable to predict how the Porcupine caribou herd will interact with the project and as such is unable to determine the significance of adverse sociocultural effects related to the access to and use of the Porcupine caribou herd.”

According to the report, more information should have been provided about how First Nations and the Inuvialuit use the caribou in the project area and how access to the caribou might be affected by industrial activity. It should also have included a process to establish safe operating distances and critical numbers for the herd.

In the worst-case scenario, YESAB found, the drilling might cause the herd to abandon a large portion of its winter habitat in the area.

The report quotes a Vuntut Gwitchin citizen who said the project “could lead to the permanent destruction of what I hold most closely to my heart.”

But Tetlichi said the management board has data dating back from the 1970s that might have helped Northern Cross fill some of the information gaps.

“We’re not against development. We’re a neutral body,” he said. “Our doors are open to giving out information to proponents.”

Still, it’s unclear whether all the necessary data actually exist.

Matt Clarke, a regional biologist with the Yukon government, said the Porcupine Caribou Management Board’s technical committee made a push to deploy GPS collars on caribou starting in 2013, “with this project on the horizon.” The collars can provide information about habitat use and how it changes after a disturbance. But that kind of research takes time.

“Some of the information is still being collected to enable those analyses to happen,” he said.

He said industry and government share the responsibility of providing all the information that’s required for a project to proceed. But he said the government and the management board have taken steps to provide more information that would be useful to Northern Cross.

“I think there’s a responsibility on industry through an environmental assessment process to do some of those analyses,” he said.

He said Northern Cross recently had the option to participate in a study that involved putting out remote cameras to study how caribou use linear disturbances, but that “didn’t materialize.”

But not all fingers are pointing at Northern Cross in the wake of this decision.

YESAB has also come under criticism for bumping the company back to the start of the assessment process after reviewing the project for nearly two years.

Rich Thompson, chair of the Yukon Chamber of Commerce, said inefficient assessment processes are making the Yukon “an impossible jurisdiction to do business in.”

“We’re extremely worried that people are simply throwing up their arms and saying ‘Forget about it,’” he said.

He said uncertainty about the outcome of an evaluation and how long it could take is a problem.

“If YESAB rejected the file for an understandable set of reasons, that would at least bring some finality to the process.”

Thompson said he’s heard from “multiple sources” that YESAB is plagued by a lack of resources and too few experienced people.

Still, in this case, YESAB’s hands may have been tied. A project in the lowest level of assessment, as Northern Cross’s proposal was, can only be referred to executive committee screening at the end of an assessment - not partway through.

And YESAB can’t just kick a project out of assessment because of a lack of information. It can issue information requests to a proponent - Northern Cross received four separate requests - but as long as the company makes some kind of response, YESAB has to complete its assessment.

When asked what YESAB’s decision means for Yukon’s fledgling oil-and-gas industry, Premier Darrell Pasloski had little to say.

“Fundamentally, what we have to offer as a primary economy is a resource-based economy,” he said. “Resources will create opportunities for great-paying jobs for Yukoners.”

Contact Maura Forrest at