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Yukon gov't caps oil and gas exploration complaints

It was hot, cramped and noisy inside the Yukon Transportation Museum on Wednesday night as the territory's oil and gas branch held its second public meeting about allowing industry to explore the Whitehorse Basin.

It was hot, cramped and noisy inside the Yukon Transportation Museum on Wednesday night as the territory’s oil and gas branch held its second public meeting about allowing industry to explore the Whitehorse Basin.

But it wasn’t what many attendees expected. When the oil and gas community meetings kicked off in Tagish last week, officials gave a presentation and then answered questions from the crowd.

But the Whitehorse meeting was instead staged as an open house. Attendees milled around a cramped room, lined with billboards that featured colourful geological maps.

Officials were on hand to answer questions, but none of them wore name tags and at times it was hard to identify who they were. And the acoustics of the room were such that it was hard to catch any conversation without standing immediately beside someone.

This arrangement left many people unhappy.

“This isn’t a public consultation. This is a trade show,” said Malcolm Mills. “We’re here to be spoon-fed by the industry.”

The meeting format was changed for the benefit of residents who may be uncomfortable speaking in front of a crowd, said Jesse Devost, a communications official with Energy, Mines and Resources.

Others wondered if the new format was to prevent the public from piling on criticisms, as had occurred in Tagish. The meeting location itself seemed a peculiar choice, being out of the way and off the transit routes.

Nonetheless, conservationists’ concerns dominated the evening event.

Cynicism was in the air, following the government’s push to open much of the Peel watershed up to development.

“It’s a smoke and mirrors game,” said Don Roberts. “I’m not blaming the people here, but the government is hiding and I think the real decisions have been made. It’s like the Peel: ‘We don’t care what you think, we’ll do it anyway.’”

“People feel betrayed now,” said Jim Tredger, NDP MLA for Mayo-Tatchun. “We have a rogue government and people are losing faith.”

Yukon Conservation Society executive director Karen Baltgailis echoed that sentiment.

“Why should people have any confidence they’ll be listened to? When the Yukon government uses taxpayers’ dollars to publish misleading advertisements on the Peel watershed? And after seven years of consultations, they’re ignoring all of it? Where’s the democracy?”

Natural gas has been touted by the Yukon Party government as one solution to the territory’s growing electricity pinch.

Gas is cheaper and cleaner than diesel fuel, which is currently burned to supply the territory’s electric grid during peak months of consumption. And producing gas in the territory would create jobs and reduce the need to truck fuel up the Alaska Highway.

But opponents warn that the landscapes of northern Alberta and B.C. have become badly scarred by oil and gas exploration and that the same could happen here.

Another big fear is that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, could contaminate drinking water.

Comments written on a flipboard at the meeting were uniformly negative.

“No Whitehorse oil and gas exploration and development until after land use planning,” said one.

“Too bad we couldn’t ask questions publicly and everyone could hear answers,” said another.

“This is a sham. YTG will do what it wants.”

“Groundwater could easily be polluted by spills.”

“Where are our representatives hiding?”

Elke and Peter Huber came from Tagish to circulate a petition they helped to start. It calls on the legislative assembly to block oil and gas development.

“My feeling is they’d sell the northern lights to a billionaire if the price is right,” said Peter.

An oil and gas company would have to clear many hurdles before it could start exploring.

The government first needs to decide whether to grant oil and gas exploration rights for the Whitehorse Basin, which stretches from Carmacks to Carcross. That’s what the public is being consulted on now.

If this proceeds - which many at the meeting viewed as a foregone conclusion - then parcels would be granted to the highest bidder. Any company that secures rights still must clear the territory’s environmental reviews before it could do any exploration work.

In Tagish, officials tried to reassure a skeptical crowd that exploration work would only affect a tiny fraction of the territory.

“But 90 per cent of the population lives in the area,” countered Werner Rheine in Whitehorse.

Mills and many others were especially concerned with the prospect of fracking near Whitehorse.

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 they start fracking within 500 kilometres of Whitehorse, we’re leaving,” said Mills.

He wondered whether water wells will be tested first to establish a baseline for any effects by industry.

Mills also noted that the oil and gas branch’s manager of rights and royalties, Debra Wortley, is soon leaving her job.

“We’re going ahead with it, and there’s no manager at the department,” said Mills. “There’s no captain of the ship and it’s full steam ahead.”

Wortley retires in September. And she’ll be taking a leave of absence in May, returning in June.

“But I have people in training and they’re here,” she said.

A meeting will be held in the Lake Laberge riding on Feb. 29 and in Carcross on March 7. Another meeting in Whitehorse is also expected later in March.

Contact John Thompson at