Tagish residents vent oil and gas concerns

Fears that oil and gas development will sully the Yukon's southern lakes region dominated a community meeting on Thursday. Some worried that industry would spoil prime caribou and moose habitat.

TAGISH

Fears that oil and gas development will sully the Yukon’s southern lakes region dominated a community meeting on Thursday.

Some worried that industry would spoil prime caribou and moose habitat. Others fretted that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it’s called, could contaminate community water supplies.

“We’re still drinking out of the lake,” said Mary Ann Lewis, of California Beach. “One accident can cause incredible damage to the drinking water of so many people.”

“I can’t imagine any tourists wanting to see oil drills,” said Elke Huber, of Tagish.

“I want my great-grandchildren to go down the Yukon River in a canoe and be able to drink the water,” said Don Ford, of Jake’s Corner.

There was considerable disillusionment among the more than 50 area residents who attended a meeting at the Tagish Community Centre put on by the Yukon government.

To many, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that the government will grant oil and gas exploration rights to 12 proposed parcels of land in the Whitehorse Basin, which stretches from Carmacks to Carcross.

“Could it be stopped?” Peter Huber, of Tagish, asked about the process that’s now underway.

“I’d probably say, no,” said Debra Wortley, an official with Yukon’s oil and gas branch. “Not the process. If we can mitigate your concerns, we’ll mitigate your concerns.”

“It’s going to happen anyway?” asked Theo Stad, of Crag Lake.

Wortley offered to relay his concerns to the minister. That offered little comfort to Stad.

“So you can do what you did with the Peel,” he said, referring to this week’s announcement by Energy, Mines and Resources Minister Brad Cathers that he wants to allow development in much of the watershed.

Asked again later if residents could sway the process, Wortley said,

“I don’t know.”

Boyd Piper, of Tagish, had trouble seeing the purpose of the meeting, given the limited amount of information at hand for residents.

“I feel quite patronized at this point. This is southern lakes. Water is an issue. Caribou is an issue. This is supposed to be news?”

Community input could help officials redraw contentious land parcels, said Wortley.

The identity of the company or companies seeking dispositions remains a secret for now. It’ll only be revealed later, when companies bid for oil and gas rights.

This secrecy is required by the Yukon’s legislation, said Wortley. “This information isn’t released anywhere in Canada,” she said.

“The minister doesn’t know who requested it,” she said. “I do and my assistant does. That’s all.”

It’s important to know the track record of the company seeking oil and gas rights, said Piper.

“We’re left with the mess. So knowing that information up front is somewhat important.”

Richard Corbet tried to reassure the crowd. He’s the operations manager for the oil and gas branch and, as such, he’s able to shut down any operation that breaks the rules.

Corbet worked in the industry for several decades. “I’ve seen a lot of people screw things up in a lot of places,” he said.

He saw the biggest messes made in poor countries with lax environmental laws, like Indonesia, Iraq and Peru.

“Probably the biggest reason why I took this job is I don’t like to see that kind of thing happen,” said Corbet.

The oil and gas industry also runs amok in Alberta, said Corbet. “In Alberta, it’s possible to get away with things at times. I don’t like it.”

But Alberta’s overwhelmed by development. Not so in the Yukon.

“It’s not exactly like we’re run off our feet chasing drill rigs up here,” said Corbet.

Take the Kotaneelee project, which has produced natural gas in the southeast corner of the Yukon for more than 20 years.

When the operator trucked in oil-based mudding, Corbet told them they’d have to later truck it out. And they complied.

To do otherwise could result in fines of up to $500,000 and six months in jail, he said.

It’s still early days in the push to pump more natural gas from the ground. If the Whitehorse Basin land dispositions are granted, companies would be invited to bid for the right to explore for resources.

Any actual exploration activity would need to be vetted by Yukon’s regulatory regime.

“It’s not like we just let them loose,” said Corbet. “We do inspections, all the time.”

Oil and gas exploration would only affect “one-tenth of one per cent” of the territory, said Corbet. “I have trouble seeing that as huge,” he said, comparing the industry to forestry, farming and mining.

“Not to offend any miners here, but some of the stuff I’ve seen as a result of mining makes me want to vomit,” said Corbet.

The boreal forest of northern Alberta and B.C. has been sliced up by exploration cut-lines, warn conservationists. But Corbet said that probably couldn’t happen here.

“I can’t imagine someone trying to pull that off in virgin territory,” he said.

Seismic work could either be done by helicopter or by driving thumper trucks along established roads and trails, he said.

Fracking remained a big fear for residents. 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, at times, polluted groundwater.

“If it’s responsibly done, it’s safe and allows economical removal of hydrocarbons when you simply couldn’t do it any other way,” said Corbet.

“In places in the Yukon, there could be some issues,” he said. Until oil and gas companies have shown they can frack without risking nearby water sources, Corbet said his answer to them would be “No.”

Another worry about fracking is it may cause earthquakes. In Colorado, U.S. Army engineers managed to set off a quake with a magnitude of 3.2 in the 1970s, said Corbet.

But that exercise was 100 times as big as what’s performed by oil and gas companies today, he said. If any earthquakes were to occur because of fracking in the Yukon, they’d be “little teensy ones, generally,” said Corbet.

“I wouldn’t expect anything big.”

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com