One last oil and gas blowout

Yukon government official Ron Sumanik graciously accepted the glass of water, perhaps unaware of the stinging reply to follow. "Drink it now," said Julie Frisch. "It might not be good in the future.

Yukon government official Ron Sumanik graciously accepted the glass of water, perhaps unaware of the stinging reply to follow.

“Drink it now,” said Julie Frisch. “It might not be good in the future.”

The crowd of approximately 100 people attending an oil and gas meeting at Whitehorse’s High Country Inn last night got a good chuckle.

As the territory’s manager of oil and gas business development, Sumanik was saddled with the thankless job of leading a presentation that touts the merits of gas exploration to a crowd that appeared to be entirely opposed to such plans.

It was the last of a string of community meetings, and, as a last hurrah, conservationists employed more theatrical gags than usual.

Werner Rhein brought a placard. One side read: “We agree that for now oil may run our cars. It should never run the Yukon government.”

The other said: “Faro was regulated and licensed – of the time. So was Fukushima. Regulations don’t always protect. Don’t add Southern Lakes to the list.”

More intriguingly, a couple silently stood in the back of the room with paper bags over their heads. “Pay to place your ad here,” was written on the masks.

Sumanik gave the business case for developing the Whitehorse Basin, an area that stretches from Carcross to Carmacks.

Yukon Energy anticipates running out of surplus electricity next year largely thanks to a commitment to allow Victoria Gold’s proposed Eagle mine to plug into the grid.

Natural gas is touted by Premier Darrell Pasloski, among others, as a made-in-the-Yukon solution.

There likely isn’t enough oil and gas to export, said Sumanik. But a company may be looking at selling it as a cheaper, cleaner alternative to burning diesel.

Mines should have to supply their own power, several residents said.

Take that up with the boss of Yukon Energy, Sumanik replied.

A big environmental concern raised by residents is hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. People worry it could contaminate community water supplies.

It involves blasting pressurized water, chemicals and sand deep underground to extract gas pockets from shale.

Fracking is known to cause earthquakes, said Sumanik. But they are only small ones, he said. “So far these events are barely felt by humans.”

On Monday, Energy, Mines and Resources Minister Brad Cathers promised to ban shallow fracking. “He wouldn’t allow gas extraction in an aquifer,” said Sumanik.

Much remains unknown. The geology of the Whitehorse Basin is poorly understood. And the company or companies that are seeking exploration rights are unknown, for now. So are their plans.

Once the consultation period ends, Cathers must decide whether to release exploration rights for the 12 parcels up for consideration. If this does happen, the rights will be sold to the highest bidder.

Only then, is the company identified.

Any future exploration work would still need to clear the Yukon’s regulatory regime.

“It’s not a given that the minister is going forward with any of this,” said Sumanik. But many in the crowd worried the decision to proceed had already been made.

Several people criticized Cathers for not attending any of the public meetings.

And the fact it was World Water Day wasn’t lost on Malcolm Mills. Even poor countries, like Somalia, have banned fracking, he said. He wants the Yukon to do the same.

“A country whose leaders are a bunch of warlords realized this was bad for its people,” he said.

Linda Johnson wondered how big of a setback companies would have to obey if they obtained exploration rights close to her “piece of paradise” near Lake Laberge.

“If there’s an oil and gas rig across the road, it may as well be on my property,” she said.

The minimum setback is likely 100 metres, said Sumanik, provoking concerned chuckles in the room. But, he added, a greater setback could be decided during the regulatory review.

These rules aren’t new, said Sumanik. The Yukon’s oil and gas laws date back to the NDP government of Piers McDonald.

“We’ve been trying to make Yukoners aware of this process for 13 years,” said Sumanik.

Steve Roddick asked officials to follow the precautionary principle and hold off on oil and gas exploration until it’s proven to be safe.

Sumanik said he couldn’t speak for the minister, but regulators “take a precautionary approach,” he said. “These are responsible officials who care about the land and water.”

Sean Smith, of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation, wasn’t buying it.

“You want to dump this water in tailings ponds, and you think it’ll be safe? That’s ridiculous,” he said. “It’s a dirty business.”

But Sumanik suggested that Smith and his First Nation don’t see eye to eye on oil and gas development.

“I encourage you to learn their views,” he said.

Smith didn’t have faith in Cathers to make the right call, either. “I think him and these ministers should sit in a snowbank because they’re pretty hot. They need to cool down.”

Residents have until March 30 to submit comments to the territory’s oil and gas branch on the dispositions. For more information, visit www.emr.gov.yk.ca.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com

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