Of all the places to find someone agreeable to opening up the Whitehorse Trough to oil and gas exploration, you’d think it would be the Mayo Road area just north of the Yukon capital.
The area is known as a conservative stronghold and the riding of Energy, Mines and Resources Minister Brad Cathers.
Yet of the more than 60 residents who crammed into the Hootalinqua Fire Hall on Wednesday evening, only one spoke in favour of the proposal.
Harry Kulych is a retired geologist who helped explore for oil and gas in the Eagle Plains region in the 1960s.
He’d welcome the industry to the Whitehorse Trough, which stretches from Carmacks to Carcross, as a source of jobs and a solution to the territory’s looming power pinch.
Even the Yukoners who most ardently seek to protect the territory’s wild places need fossil fuels to live their lives, said Kulych.
“Is anyone tonight going to get home without gas?” he asked.
But Kulych’s view wasn’t shared by any other residents who spoke at the meeting, unless you count the ones employed by the territory’s oil and gas branch.
Garry Umbrich, the owner of the Takhini Hot Springs, worried that drilling could contaminate water reservoirs in the area.
He’s also concerned that if the territorial government grants oil and gas exploration rights, it will later have trouble rejecting any contentious exploration plans floated by companies.
“Once they start putting money on the table, they want to carry through with their plans,” said Umbrich.
If Cathers agrees to grant oil and gas rights, parcels will be put out to the highest bidder. Alison Reid wondered why money is the sole criteria for companies seeking to explore. “It seems really odd,” she said.
Debra Wortley, manager of rights and royalties, said this ensures companies are able to pay for exploration and cleanup.
But Ron Sumanik, manager of oil and gas business development, conceded the bidding process may be flawed.
“You’re right. We have one criteria: it’s the highest bidder,” said Sumanik. “That’s one thing we’re looking to improve with our act and regulations.”
Bob Nardi noted that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is nowhere mentioned in the Yukon’s laws and regulations. Neither is shale.
Fracking is a method used to extract pockets of natural gas from shale deposits by blasting pressurized water, sand and chemicals deep underground.
The technology has triggered an exploration bonanza in the United States. It’s also, at times, polluted groundwater.
British Columbia has created a manual for fracking, said Nardi. The province also requires companies to publicly disclose the ingredients of their fracking fluid in an online registry.
“There’s nothing like that in the Yukon,” said Nardi.
The Yukon would use, rather than duplicate, the work of other jurisdictions, said Wortley.
“Quite frankly, we’re not going to repeat what B.C.‘s done, if they already have a lovely manual,” she said.
And the territory plans to join the fracking registry in the next month, said Sumanik. It’s also reviewing its oil and gas laws and regulations over the coming year.
Many in attendance worried that the decision to push ahead with oil and gas exploration is a foregone conclusion.
“Nobody seems to be interested in what we’re saying,” said Ulrich Klausing.
Sumanik, who has lived in the area since 1998, agreed that “most of us came to live here because of a certain qualify of life.”
To this, Klausing shot back: “It’s being destroyed.”
Officials recognize that Yukoners prize their wilderness and strive to protect it, said Sumanik.
“I have no intent of poisoning my well or polluting an aquifer,” he said.
But Sumanik suggested it’s unrealistic to expect no development to occur.
When he moved to the neighbourhood, he didn’t expect a paintball course to be built near his home either, he said.
“But this is a much bigger thing,” said Klausing.
The oil and gas branch is following fracking concerns “on a daily basis,” said Sumanik. But he conceded there could be no guarantee there would be no problems.
Linda Leon wanted to know if residential wells would be tested before and after any nearby drilling so that companies wouldn’t be able to claim contamination existed before they arrived.
Yes, said Richard Corbet, the Yukon’s manager of operations for oil and gas. Residential wells would be tested within half a mile of drilling before and after activity, he said.
Trapper Jean Legare worried that if oil and gas companies move in, the area could see the release of sour gas, which is highly poisonous.
“One lung full kills you,” he said. Legare wondered what that would mean for the marten, lynx, moose and bear in the area.
Barriers and fencing could help keep animals away, said Sumanik.
And wildlife has fared well near the Kotaneelee gas plant which has operated for more than two decades in southeast Yukon, said Wortley.
That site has to contend with sour gas, she said.
“I’ve been to southeast Yukon,” she said. “It’s the busiest bear population I’ve seen around.”
The Yukon’s already tapped out of hydroelectrical power during the winter months. As a result, the territory needs to burn dirty and expensive diesel fuel.
Natural gas, which is cheaper and cleaner than diesel, is being eyed as a potential fix.
Western Copper and Gold wants to truck in liquefied natural gas from B.C. to power its proposed Casino project. But the company has said it would welcome a source closer to home.
Northern Cross, a Calgary company, has partnered with a big Chinese oil and gas producer to firm up its oil and gas resources in Eagle Plains, off the Dempster Highway. First Nations, meanwhile, are looking at how to best get this gas to market.
The industry should have a small environmental footprint, said Wortley. Early exploration work would likely be done with thumper trucks conducting seismic work along existing roads and trails, or with helicopters, she said.
And if a company does drill a producing well, it could haul in a liquefied natural gas plant as small as the cramped room in which the meeting was held, said Wortley.
Little is known of the geology of the Whitehorse Trough. But it’s not expected there’s enough oil and gas to warrant building a pipeline to export the fuel, said Wortley.
Yukoners would benefit from jobs, business contracts, training and resource royalties, said Sumanik.
But Gary Bemis worried the territory could be “on the hook” if an environmental disaster occurred, despite Sumanik’s assurance that companies would be responsible for cleanup costs.
“Like BP in the Gulf of Mexico?” asked Bemis. “Or the Exxon Valdez?”
Other community meetings are planned for Mount Lorne on March 5, Carcross on March 7, Marsh Lake on March 13 and Whitehorse on March 22.
Contact John Thompson at