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The Peel Watershed – Frack It Or Leave It

Joseph O'Brien - Northern Tutchone citizen speaks at a Peel Watershed protest in May 2012.

By Norm Hamilton

It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.

– Ansel Adams

Antagonists in the confrontation in Yukon over the Peel Watershed are polarized between protecting the environment and creating economic opportunity. The Peel Watershed is not only a pristine wilderness; it is potentially rich in fossil fuels that could be extracted using a hotly disputed method.

Hydraulic Fracturing—“Fracking”—is the shattering of rock, usually shale. A cocktail of water, sand and chemicals is introduced into the earth under high pressure causing the shale to split and allow the oil or natural gas to find its way to the well. While the industry claims safety, there have been many instances of poisoned water wells and pollution of the air around the fracking. Extraordinary amounts of water are required to implement fracking, reportedly around five millions gallons per well. In some US states it is now illegal to state what chemicals are used.

In the quest for economic increase we create pipelines, perform fracking and allow careless mining. All these have been responsible for adulterated water supplies and polluted environments. At the same time, because we live and die based on economic circumstances, jobs are necessary to the working public.

Dave Loeks, former chair of the Peel Watershed Planning Commission at a Peel Watershed protest in May 2012
Dave Loeks, former chair of the Peel Watershed Planning Commission at a Peel Watershed protest in May 2012

There is more to the argument to protect the Peel Watershed than retaining the pristine beauty vs monetary growth. The watershed is one of the few remaining vestiges of pure, clean water left on earth. Plundering it for imaginary wealth may be a death knell.

Will the Peel Watershed be fracked?

The Peel Watershed Planning Commission (PWPC), was established in October 2004 with the express purpose of providing recommendations for the Peel Watershed. Their mandate was to maintain “wilderness characteristics, wildlife and their habitats, cultural resources, and waters” while managing resource use. Seven years, countless studies and consultations resulted in recommendations that 80% of the area be protected with 1% available for minimal development, up to 11% be used for conservative development – and 8% for major development.

However, the Yukon government has a different agenda.

“This remote area holds resources that have the potential to be of great value to Yukon’s economy, both now and in the future,” said Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources Scott Kent.

The Yukon government’s unilateral plan protects up to 29% of the region rather than the 80% recommended by the PWPC. Government’s focus on the economy, ignoring the environment, causes people to wonder if their decisions and information are disingenuous. The press release includes the term “enhanced regulatory and permit processes,” ostensibly designed to assure people of the safety of the development.

The Yukon Conservation Society and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Yukon along with the First Nation of Nacho Nyak Dun and the Tr’ondek Hwech’in have filed a lawsuit hoping to protect the 42,000-square-mile watershed. They argue that the government breached the planning process as provided by the PWPC.

Prominent lawyer, Thomas Berger represented the Plaintiffs in court in July 2014. Berger said the lawsuit is unwanted but the government has forced the issue. The plaintiffs wish to defend First Nation and environmental values as well as principles rooted in the Constitution.

Joseph O'Brien, Northern Tutchone citizen and Stephanie Sidney, Teslin Tlingit Council member sing at the Peel Protest on May 5, 2012
Joseph O’Brien, Northern Tutchone citizen and Stephanie Sidney, Teslin Tlingit Council member sing at the Peel Protest on May 5, 2012

Then there is the much ballyhooed billion dollars plus budget presented by the Yukon Party. The budget address presented by Premier Pasloski states, “The Government of Yukon’s Budget for 2014-2015 is $1 billion and $318.4 million. ($1,318,400,000).

In reality, $898 million of the budget is federal money provided as Health Transfer, Social Transfer and Territorial Formula Financing. That leaves $410,400,000, approximately 31% of the total, to be collected from citizens, industry and commerce. At one time mining provided $300 million, but that figure is now closer to $85 million.

Statistics of July 2013 show 19,000 people employed in Yukon, 700 in forestry, fishing, mining, oil and gas. This is less than 3%; not all Yukon residents. To be fair, there are some jobs in the businesses that supply mines as well.

Economy is artificial, existing because we agree it does. Environment exists whether we agree it does or not.

When only the economy is taken into account, the environment suffers. Conversely, if we consider just the environment there may be a lack of employment and economic growth. Governments at the federal, provincial and territorial levels are taking the paternalistic position of entering into agreements contrary to the wishes of constituents.

An example is the Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA) signed September 9th, 2012. Some of the highlights of concern are as follows:

  • The negotiation was conducted behind closed doors.
  • It is a 31 year agreement with 1 year release clause effective after the initial 15 years have lapsed.
  • The FIPA causes us to relinquish control of our labour laws, natural resources and removes full ability to protect our environment.
  • Chinese corporations (owned by the Chinese government) can sue any level of government in Canada for creating rules or regulations that interfere with their ability to create profits.
  • The hearings for those suits will be before an international tribunal, rather than courts, and the resulting decisions will be paid for by Canadian Taxpayers.

This was not the first agreement of its kind, nor was it the last. To get an idea of the full extent of these go to

Peel Protesters in front of the Yukon Legislative Assembly May 2012.
Peel Protesters in front of the Yukon Legislative Assembly May 2012.

Today’s issues include the Northern Gateway Pipeline proposed by Enbridge and promoted by the federal government. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Chiefs, said this project is destined to cross critical watersheds, streams and rivers, placing the environment in jeopardy. Enbridge claims there will be 3,000 construction jobs and 560 long-term jobs, all here in B.C.

In 2012, Marc Lee wrote a paper that questions the accuracy of these claims. Recently, the citizens of Kitimat, BC have voted against having this pipeline in their area.

Meanwhile the BC Liberal government is pursuing Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) agreements under protest by numerous environment groups.

So, the question remains, “Does the economy trump the environment or can equilibrium be reached?”