This year, to the delight of industry but the scorn of environmentalists, the Yukon government has dramatically increased the land base available for oil and gas exploration.
The Yukon Party’s changes to the licensing process have removed several regulatory steps required under the former system and has given oil and gas companies the power to tell government where they want to explore.
Officials say the changes are designed to drum up more industry interest, though environmentalists assert the Yukon government is “abdicating” its role as land regulator to energy companies.
“The process is shorter and more succinct now,” John Masterson, director of oil and gas with Energy, Mines and Resources, said about the new request-for-postings system.
It has removed a step that saw companies nominate a piece of land, which then triggered several reviews.
After the nomination, those potentially affected by oil and gas exploration had to be consulted.
Following that public review, the government would open the area for exploration bids, or declare it off limits.
That’s no longer the case.
“There’s a greater (land) area open for selection in Yukon now under the revised process,” said Masterson.
The last attempt to pitch Yukon land to industry, in 2004, was a complete flop, he said.
“There was no interest, so we explored why there was no interest.”
A review of the system determined the process was too complex, he said.
During government discussions with affected communities, the many-layered consultation process was said to be overkill — because reviews for many of the areas had already been completed, said Masterson.
“When a company nominates a piece of land, then you go out and consult again, and many of the comments (the government received from communities) were: ‘Why are you asking again?’
“It’s a fair comment because the call-for-nominations process was intended to start broad then be focused in,” he said.
Under the new system, “There’s no more redundant consultation.”
The new policy was issued on January 11.
Requests for postings are invited through most of the Yukon, except for protected areas, parks, and land that falls within First Nations territory with unsettled land claims.
A posting can be no larger than 500 square kilometres.
When a request for posting arrives under the new system it will be reviewed then released to the public for comment, as well as to any First Nation that would be affected.
The oil and gas department then writes a report for Energy, Mines and Resources Minister Archie Lang, who has the final authority to approve it.
But while the changes may encourage industry to return to search the Yukon for oil and gas reserves, they also betray a pro-industry mentality within the Yukon government that isn’t concerned about environmental impacts, said critics.
“We think this is a desperate and reckless proposal,” said Jim Pojar, director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s Yukon chapter.
“What the Yukon government is proposing amounts to a free-entry-style land grab for the oil and gas industry,” he said. “Instead of the Yukon government, on behalf of Yukon citizens, indicating where the best, most appropriate places would be to open up for exploration by industry, they are kind of handing that over to industry.
“It becomes an industry-driven process, and YTG is essentially abdicating its regulatory role and responsibility.”
As well, it doesn’t give much review time to First Nation governments.
“I have some concerns that have been expressed to us from First Nations and a number of stakeholders regarding the timing,” said Liberal leader Arthur Mitchell.
“They have this sort of expedited process where they say they’ve picked the area after consultation with industry, and now there’s so many days to intervene.
“What we’ve heard repeatedly from First Nations is that that amount of time is not necessarily long enough, because they don’t have the capacity to respond. We have an oil and gas branch; they often have one individual working in the First Nation.
“I’m not opposed in principle to consulting with the industry to say, ‘What areas are of interest to you’ — that’s logical.
“However, I’m concerned if there’s wholesale changes that tighten the timelines,” preventing meaningful intervention from any party that might be impacted by potential development.”