Volume 39, Number 4: July/August 2005

Northern Temperatures Rising

You’ve probably heard the old joke about Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon Territory: it’s not the end of the world, but if you look hard enough, you can see it from here. These days, the joke isn’t quite so funny anymore. Climate change has arrived in the Yukon. And although climate change doesn’t actually herald imminent global disaster, it does have dark implications for existing Yukon ecosystems.

The Yukon is one of the planet’s climate-change hot spots, a fact that has attracted considerable interest in the academic research community. At the same time, the Yukon government is working hard to attract the interest of the oil-and-gas industry. Both exploration and research are touted by government as sources of economic diversity and job creation. The government argument is that work for Yukoners will be created by establishing an oil-and-gas sector. Perversely, too, the Yukon will create academic and industry opportunities in the study of–and adaptation to–climate change! This is ecological madness, sort of like paying someone to burn down their house in order to develop their firefighting skills.

War and Development in the Yukon

Before people had much of an understanding of climate change and the environmental impacts of oil-and-gas development, the Yukon experienced a previous brush with the fossil-fuel sector. During the Second World War, the territory was criss-crossed with oil and fuel pipelines for the war effort. A crude-oil pipeline ran from the Northwest Territories to Whitehorse. A refinery was built to upgrade the fuel for the war effort. Fuel pipelines ran up and down the various main roads, including the Alaska Highway.

Unlike the old pipelines, the Alaska Highway and its tributary roads are still here. This means fresh fruits and vegetables can be trucked up daily from points south. They permit a suburban North American consumer lifestyle, with everything from Wal-Mart to Starbucks. Oil and propane are now trucked around the Yukon. One community even has fuel flown into it using large cargo planes.

It is still possible, however, to find the location of the old pipelines. It takes a long time for trees to grow back in the north, and some of the herbicides and pesticides used to keep the corridors clear of vegetation were pretty potent. These pipeline corridors have negative impacts on wildlife, especially on large mammals like caribou.

Caribou and the Ecosystem

Caribou are an indicator species for northern ecosystems. If the caribou are doing well, odds are the rest of the ecosystem is doing well. The Yukon has about 30,000 woodland caribou and over 125,000 caribou in the trans-boundary Porcupine Herd.

Studies from the Alberta oil patch show that caribou avoid what are called linear disturbances. These include things like pipeline corridors and seismic lines. One reason why is that these lines allow easy visual and physical access for predators. In effect, they become wolf highways.

Caribou soon learn to associate the corridors with predators and avoid them. As a rule, the more linear disturbances there are, the fewer the number of caribou. Their habitat becomes too fragmented for them to survive. They try to move on. The problem is, of course: Where do you go when you’re at the end of the world? After the mobilization associated with the Second World War, here was a lull in the Yukon. The next time the oil-and-gas industry showed up was in the sixties and seventies. Most of this activity was in the north, and a flight over the landscape shows the scars. Seismic lines, caused by the work done prior to drilling wells, mark the landscape. Forty years ago, they didn’t fool around when they wanted to provide human corridors to the wilderness. Bulldozers were used to clear strips tens of kilometres long.

As well, quite a few exploratory wells were drilled, which created a lot of waste, some of it hazardous to the environment. Back then, the standard practice was to bury all waste in pits and then leave. In one case, a refuse pit from an old oil exploration well was buried next to the Peel River. Northern rivers move over the years, and this one eroded the riverbank and exposed the old dump. An expensive clean-up and riverbank restoration followed.

About the same time the pit was first dug, the Dempster Highway was completed. Envisioned as a road to resources, the Dempster Highway is the only road in Canada to allow public access over the Arctic Circle. It was built to encourage the oil-and-gas sector, but ended up becoming a tourist road. This year, for the first time in about twenty years, a rig went up the Dempster to drill an exploration well in the Yukon. The funny thing is that it is being drilled in an area where, even if fossil fuel is found, it cannot get out. There’s no pipeline anywhere near the area in question.

What’s the point of permitting environmental destruction in an area where the commodity is stranded? This highlights how the whole approach to oil and gas in the Yukon has been rushed. Minimal to no land-use planning has occurred in areas that government wants to open up to oil-and-gas development.

Moreover, it takes a long time for trees and shrubs to grow in the north. Up here, it can take a small tree over a hundred years to attain the height of an average indoor Christmas tree. The land itself is usually discontinuous permafrost, and cutting a seismic line with a bulldozer scars it permanently.

And, of course, once the oil-and-gas rights have been issued, a multitude of other uses are ruled out. Goodbye, protected areas. Farewell, eco-tourism opportunities. And, as for subsistence hunting or trapping, you can forget about it. It’s time to consider other employment.

Jet-Plane Syndrome

Yukon politicians are in the position of both promoting the oil-and-gas industry–which involves flying off to fancy trade shows and high-profile meetings with other pro–fossil-fuel politicians–and with regulating it, with all the attendant paperwork and endless meetings with constituents and bureaucrats that this entails. We northerners call this the jet-plane syndrome. The attraction of travelling around the continent to promote the Yukon as an oil-and-gas territory appears to be more important than developing land-use plans and protected-area strategies to protect the environment back home.

The Yukon might not be the world’s end, but it is literally the end of the road for land-based oil and gas development on this continent. Presently the Yukon has only one functioning natural-gas well, located in the extreme southeast of the territory. All of its gas is exported to British Columbia–an amount greater than the oil energy used by Yukoners for all their energy purposes.

The Yukon has a stand-alone electrical grid. It is an energy island separate from other jurisdictions. What this means is that the territory is dependant upon itself for power, and is not affected by blackouts and increasing demand elsewhere. The Yukon grid gets almost all of its power from hydro dams. There are also two wind turbines, with a few of the smaller communities dependant upon diesel generators. Currently, efforts are being made to expand the wind-turbine system eventually to displace the diesel use.

Yukoners use oil for home heating, although most households depend on a combination of heat sources, including both propane and wood. It is always good to have a secondary source of heat in the north. The other way northerners use oil is for transportation. Thanks to some appallingly bad town planning, most Yukoners require vehicles to get around their communities. Whitehorse, despite having a population of about 22,000, is physically one of the largest municipalities in the country. The difficult lessons of suburban sprawl, learned the hard way down south, have yet to penetrate through to city planners up here. The end result is that almost everyone has to own a vehicle.

The SUV Won’t Set We Free

A common put-down is that Yukon environmentalists don’t need cars because their friends can always give them rides in their cars. The one saving grace is that SUV owners in the Yukon do actually take their vehicles off the asphalt; the gas-guzzling monstrosities sometimes get used in a manner for which they have allegedly been designed. But most northerners can’t afford a modern SUV: hence the attraction of oil-and-gas employment. The rumours of what oil companies pay employees have a kernel of truth. The starting wages are considerably higher than most other forms of employment. The work, though, is only seasonal.

In the north, most oil-and-gas work occurs only when there is enough snow cover. This protects the permafrost ground from the worst excesses of the heavy equipment. A short work season–but with big money and lots of time, off-season in small communities with already severe social problems is a recipe for disaster. To paraphrase a line from Snowman, a play by Greg MacArthur that was recently produced in Whitehorse, it might be difficult to get a decent piece of feta cheese in the north, but the quality of cocaine is always top-notch.

Given the huge cash injection fossil-fuel jobs provide, social disruption can be enormous. Environmentally the Yukon suffers not only the impacts of oil-and-gas development, but also gets hammered through climate change by the use of the very oil and gas that is being exported from the north.

The solution is obvious, though it’s almost impossible for development-oriented governments to accept: don’t permit oil-and-gas development in the Yukon. If government was really concerned about protecting one of the last great intact ecosystems left in North America, would they really permit an industry that, if it doesn’t destroy the Yukon during development, will destroy it with its end-use emissions?

Lewis Rifkind is a Yukon resident active with local environmental groups.