‘And we should also tap more of our substantial natural gas reserves and work with the Canadian government to finally build the Alaska natural gas pipeline, delivering clean natural gas and creating good jobs in the process.”
Barack Obama, US presidential candidate, August 4th, 2008
While Obama has become the darling of the young and the left, on the big northern fossil fuel projects he is sounding just the same as any old right-wing Texas oilman.
Perhaps it is time to brief the presidential wannabe about the current state of pipeline politics in the northwest section of the continent.
For a start, the Yukon has Alaska in a rather unexpected pipeline negotiating position.
It is at its complete and utter mercy.
If it were a poker game, the Yukon has just been dealt a royal flush while the Alaskans have managed to drop their cards face up on the table for everyone to see.
This situation all started a few weeks ago when the Alaskan state legislature and state senate approved $500 million in engineering and development funds to TransCanada Pipelines.
This money is for preliminary permitting work on the proposed Alaska Highway natural gas pipeline.
Five hundred million might seem like a lot, but the total cost of this pipeline is currently estimated to be in the $30 billion range.
This pipeline would run from the Prudhoe Bay region, down to Fairbanks, then essentially follow the Alaska Highway all the way to Alberta.
There the natural gas pipeline would tie in to the rest of the North American grid for distribution far and wide.
Pipeline fever is back and many issues can now be put in play in that uncertain card game sometimes called pipeline politics.
As in any decent game, there is one wild card.
In this game the Yukon has it.
The pipeline has to cross the Yukon to get from Alaska to Alberta.
It cannot go over the top, it cannot go around the bottom.
The pipeline has to traverse Canada’s most westerly territory.
At the same time there are some issues of conflict between the Yukon and Alaska.
Collapsed fisheries in Yukon rivers, due in part to Alaskan overfishing, is one.
There is also the little matter of Alaska constantly pushing to have the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd opened up to fossil fuel development.
There is also the offshore border dispute in the Beaufort Sea between the Alaskan and Yukon borders.
Canada claims it goes directly along the 141-degree latitude line to the Pole, while the Americans claim it veers eastwards towards the Canadian Archipelago.
As an aside, the state of Alaska is once again offering oil and gas rights for sale in a portion of this disputed zone.
The Alaskans need Yukon co-operation in seeing the Alaska Highway natural gas pipeline proceed.
Yet there is that aforementioned group of critical outstanding issues between the two jurisdictions.
And here comes the Joker in this political card-game.
The pipeline is not really required by the Yukon.
In fact, it is a huge negative.
The idea of taking trillions of cubic feet of a fossil fuel such as natural gas, burning it, turning it into a greenhouse gas and pumping it into the atmosphere is not a good one.
Despite Obama’s nice words, natural gas is not as clean as other forms of energy such as hydro, solar and wind.
Climate change is happening now, and all this fossil fuel development is making things much worse for the future.
The pipeline will also hardwire the North into future fossil fuel development.
There is going to be lots of pressure to ensure additional gas fields are found to keep the pipeline filled.
This is because natural gas is not a sustainable, renewable form of energy.
The gas reservoirs that are currently known in the Alaskan North will be pumped dry over the years and will have to be replaced by new discoveries.
There will be pressure in the future to open up the Porcupine caribou herd calving grounds to gas exploration.
There will also be intense pressure to permit fossil fuel exploration and development all over the Yukon.
The cumulative impacts of this proposed pipeline are unknown in their exactitude, but they are known in their general intent.
The Yukon could end up looking like Northern Alberta — an ecological nightmare.
Of course, if the Yukon had coherent climate change and energy policies this pipeline would not be permitted.
Not one foot of it would be permitted on Canadian soil.
The environmental impacts are just too great.
But since the Yukon government seems keen on the project, one must work with the hand of cards that has been dealt.
The Yukon has to be crossed by the pipeline.
The Yukon needs the Alaskans to act on certain cross-border issues.
The Yukon doesn’t need the pipeline.
One hopes Obama is as good a card player as he is an orator.
As the most-likely future leader of the United States his administration will have to represent the Alaskans with a rather weak hand at this particular negotiating table.
Now if only the Yukon government can be convinced to play the hand they have been dealt…
Lewis Rifkind is a Whitehorse based part-time environmentalist.