The oil and gas industry wants to explore the Whitehorse Basin – a big swath of ground stretching from Carcross to Carmacks.
For the next 60 days, the Yukon government is seeking public comments on the proposal but the request from industry is already drawing fire from conservationists.
“Is it worth turning southern Yukon into northern Alberta? That really scary oil and gas development, do we want that here?” said Anne Middler, energy co-ordinator with the Yukon Conservation Society.
Fragmented forest, frightened wildlife and polluted water and air could all follow, she warned.
But the region is a long way from seeing drill rigs dragged to the outskirts of municipalities, said Energy, Mines and Resources Minister Brad Cathers.
“Our primary focus, first and foremost, is protecting public health and safety and ensuring we have environmental protection,” said Cathers. “We’re simply not prepared to make the same mistakes other jurisdictions have made.”
If all goes smoothly for industry, a company may be ready to drill “in the next six years,” said Richard Corbet, manager of operations for the Yukon’s oil and gas branch.
“It’s way too soon to speculate what might be out there,” he said. “We know two per cent of what we’d like to know.”
Exploration companies are likely to start with seismic testing. That was once done by setting off dynamite; industry today is more likely to use several big trucks loaded with seismic vibrators and special sensors that gauge how sound bounces off structures deep underground.
It’s a method Corbet likens to “anti-submarine warfare on solid ground.”
But first, the government needs to approve opening up this land for exploration, which Cathers said is no sure thing. If some or all of it is opened up, companies can then bid for the right to explore the approved locations.
Once those rights are secured, exploration projects still have to clear the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board and government decision makers.
Oil and gas dispositions in the Whitehorse Basin would exclude municipal, private and First Nation land, said Cathers.
The law allows companies to explore beneath private land, but “we recognize this is very new for the Whitehorse area and in Carmacks and Carcross,” he said.
“And we realize people need some time to have public discussion about the benefits and concerns associated with oil and gas development.”
The territorial government is also reviewing its oil and gas regulations, said Cathers.
It remains a mystery for now which company, or companies, are behind the request for postings. “The process is deliberately set up to have it reviewed on the merit of applications,” said Cathers.
The 12 proposed land parcels requested by industry cover 4,113 square kilometres. That’s roughly the same size as Northern Cross’ oil and gas Eagle Plains holdings.
Some of the proposed parcels include prime habitat for the already-fragile populations of moose and caribou in the southern lakes area, warn conservationists.
Caribou in northern Alberta are nearly extinct, thanks to a criss-cross of cutlines and access roads, said Lewis Rifkind, of the Yukon Conservation Society.
“The ecosystem just won’t be able to take it. It’ll still be boreal forest – it’ll be fragmented boreal forest. And we’ll lose a lot of the animals that are there. It’ll be a huge change in lifestyle for people.”
Another big fear is that industry will explore shale deposits using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. It’s a method for extracting 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 raised the ire of conservationists who warn that shoddy fracking can pollute groundwater.
The Yukon Geological Society is currently studying the potential for shale gas in the territory. Its report should be finished by this spring.
“Our really great tap water is coming from an aquifer,” said Middler. “That’s another really serious risk we need to talk about.”
Gas flares and leaks could also take away Whitehorse’s bragging rights as having some of the cleanest air in the world, said Rifkind. “If this all goes ahead, you can kiss that goodbye.”
And he cautions that once oil and gas exploration begins, it’s hard to stop it from expanding.
“It just sprawls like crazy. Before you know it, the whole landscape is dominated. And we don’t have land-use planning in the southern Yukon.
“We’ve all driven through northern B.C. Near Fort Nelson, Fort St. John, where they have those signs that say ‘Do not stop: sulphuric gas’ because they get on the pipe or wellheads. That’s the sort of landscape we could be looking at. And I don’t think it’s something Yukoners will accept.”
Middler finds little comfort in Cathers’ regulatory review. She worries the industry-friendly government may push ahead with earlier plans to make it easier for companies to explore near private land.
And traplines won’t be protected under the territory’s exclusion areas, said Middler.
Carmacks, in particular, is “virtually surrounded by these requests for postings,” said Rifkind.
“Those areas are heavily used by people in the Carmacks region. It may not be private property, but the land is used by locals.”
The Whitehorse Basin has been explored for oil sporadically since the 1950s. But no wells have ever been drilled and no permits have been issued since 1981.
The area could potentially contain 423 billion cubic feet of natural gas and 19 million barrels of oil, according to a 2001 assessment by the National Energy Board.
Currently, natural gas is only pumped from one spot in the territory: Devon Energy’s Kotaneelee project in the southeast corner of the Yukon.
But excitement is growing over Northern Cross’ plans to pump gas from Eagle Plains. Last year, the company partnered with a big Chinese oil and gas producer to prove up estimates near the Dempster Highway.
The Yukon Party government has touted natural gas as a medium-term solution to addressing the territory’s looming electricity shortage.
The territory is growing increasingly dependent on burning diesel fuel. By comparison, natural gas is both cheaper and cleaner, said Cathers.
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