First Nation groups will lose rights to their land if proposed changes to the Yukon’s Oil and Gas Act go through this fall.
The Yukon government wants to repeal section 13 of the Act, which gives First Nations the ability to veto any proposed oil or gas activity from occurring on their traditional territory.
This clause would apply to First Nations in the southeast corner of the territory – the Liard First Nation and Ross River Dena Council – who have yet to sign land claim agreements.
The southeast corner also happens to be where most of the territory’s natural gas deposits are held.
The purpose of the change is to “enable the Yukon government to open southeast Yukon for new oil and gas activities,” states documents released by the Yukon government.
It is also “to align Yukon’s oil and gas legislation with common law provisions for consultations with First Nations.”
“In my opinion, proposing to repeal this consent is clearly inconsistent with the honour of the Crown,” said lawyer Stephen Walsh, who represents both Liard First Nation and Ross River Dena Council.
“The Yukon government acquired land (from the federal government in 1997) for oil and gas production by promising to give the First Nations a veto. The proposed changes strike me as highly inappropriate.”
The territory will be reneging on “solid commitments” to the First Nations if these amendments are passed in the legislature this fall, added Walsh.
The Kotaneele gas field, owned and operated by Devon Canada, contains the only gas wells operating in the territory.
In 2006 the company was drawing 1,000 barrels of oil per day, but that oil well is quickly drying up.
“The production rates are declining. They probably have one or two years left,” said Trevor Hard, an economic consultant for the Liard First Nation.
It’s a reason the government is pushing to step up oil and gas activity in the territory, he reasons.
If Kaska land claims were settled, the veto in section 13 of the Oil and Gas Act would no longer apply. But the land claims process has been stonewalled for decades.
“Until the Yukon government tells us differently, we maintain that we still have a veto over oil and gas on our traditional territories,” said Chief Liard MacMillan of Liard First Nation.
Chief Gordon Peters of the Ross River Dena Council was hesitant to comment on the proposed changes.
“We can talk after the 31st, that’s when negotiations will have wrapped up,” he said.
He’s referring to oil activity that has been proposed near the Toobally Lakes at the head of the Smith River in southeastern Yukon.
Ross River is currently in talks with Liard First Nation and the territorial government about this project.
The proposed changes also concern Lewis Rifkind, an environmentalist who calls the new legislation a “sleight of hand.”
“This only favours fossil-fuel companies,” he said.
“There’s nothing in the southeast but sensitive ecosystems.”
And this land could be further encroached upon with other changes to the Oil and Gas Act, said Anne Middler, an energy co-ordinator for the Yukon Conservation Society.
Holders of oil and gas licences could expropriate private land if an agreement cannot be struck, under proposed changes to sections 69 and 70 of the Act.
“They’re making it a lot easier for oil and gas companies to have whatever access to land they want,” Middler said.
She is also wary of the timing of the announced changes, as the public consultation is occurring when many bureaucrats from the oil and gas branch are away on holiday.
“If there is such limited availability for (the department) to talk to the public, why do it now? It sounds like it’s because they want to get it through the legislature.”
Officials from the Yukon oil and gas branch could not be reached due to holidays, said Chris Wearmouth, a communications analyst for Energy, Mines and Resources.
The department is accepting public input on the changes until September 14.
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