Opinion
Chris Windeyer

Yellowknife Shouldn’t Get to Vote on Sahtu Fracking

Aboriginal governments haven't struggled for independence just to have the capital impose on how they dispose of their resources

On EDGE: Opinion

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the year 2100 is impossibly far off. Virtually everyone reading this will be dead, or at best a sentient floating head in a jar.

The G7’s pledge this week to achieve full decarbonization by the next turn of the century might sound like the leaders of rich countries are essentially punting on climate change. But consider the scale of the task at hand: modern civilization is essentially rebooting its entire economy.

Get it out while the getting’s good?

This commitment essentially starts the clock ticking on fossil fuels and if you’re sitting on massive puddle of shale oil, as the Sahtu region is, you start to get an idea of when your window of opportunity is closing. As efficiency improves, renewable and low-carbon alternatives become more competitive and fossil fuel demand drops, the value of that oil plummets.

The Canol Shale alone is estimated to contain 146 billion barrels of oil, which would be enough to meet world demand for about 4.3 years, based on consumption estimates by the International Energy Agency. That’s a lot of oil, and even at today’s relatively suppressed oil prices, it’s worth a heap of money. If it ever comes out of the ground.

That remains, of course, a huge if. While major oil players like Husky and ConocoPhillips have sniffed around the region, even fracking a little, low prices, a lack of infrastructure and high operating costs have so far conspired to make the Sahtu’s shale oil deposits a stranded resource. So it’s no surprise that the leadership of the GNWT and the Sahtu are perhaps getting a little antsy about selling this resource while it’s still worth something.

Or leave it in the ground

Meanwhile, the pushback against fracking continues to build in the NWT. I’ve always found the demonization of fracking to be interesting, because it assumes that the practice is the devil, while conventional drilling is what, just peachy? And because it puts a far more complicated question on the back burner: for the sake of the climate, should all that shale oil just stay in the ground?

We saw twin efforts from Yellowknife MLAs in the assembly last week: one, from Weledeh MLA Bob Bromley, proposed a two-year moratorium on fracking so the government could conduct a broad study weighing the benefits and risks. It failed because pro-business MLAs sided with cabinet—enthusiastic boosters of oil and gas development—in voting against it.

The second, a motion from Yellowknife Centre MLA Robert Hawkins, proposed a straight up-or-down plebiscite to take place during this fall’s territorial election with a single question: “Should hydraulic fracturing be permitted in the Northwest Territories?”

This triggered a familiar NWT political dynamic: Yellowknife versus everyone else. Hawkins, for his part, appeared mortified by the notion that a territory-wide vote would come down to how Yellowknife voted. “I was actually quite upset when I heard colleagues suggest this was about region against region,” Hawkins told the assembly. “Yellowknife is not against any region.”

This is doubtless true, but it ignores a fundamental point: Yellowknife, with (by Hawkins’ own estimation) 45 percent of the NWT population, will wield enormous weight in any territory-wide plebiscite. It’s not a veto, but to suggest, as Hawkins did, that the capital could not sway the outcome of a vote, is disingenuous.

A local call

It also ignores Yellowknife’s historic role as the regional portal for the heavy hand of distant government. I think a lot of Yellowknifers tend to forget this. The NWT’s various Aboriginal governments did not battle for land claim and self government agreements only to allow another, slightly-less-distant urban plurality to weigh in on their affairs.

Sahtu MLA Norman Yakeleya said as much in the assembly (while also noting that Yellowknife’s diamond mines are hardly benign when it comes to impacts on water): “Read my lips: The Sahtu people have a land claim. They are the ones who said yes, open the lands for exploration.”

Now that’s not the same as unanimity. Yellowknife based anti-fracking activists suggested to the CBC that there are Sahtu residents who are concerned about fracking. No doubt there are, and the jury’s still out on whether this entire enterprise is a good idea, or whether it will even happen at all. If activists want to funnel expertise and support to their allies in the Sahtu, that’s one thing.

But devolution does not just mean repatriating authority from Ottawa; it has also started the process of vesting more authority with Aboriginal governments. Whether or not to dive into oil development is a huge question: the environmental and social risks are real, and must be weighed carefully. Perhaps the Sahtu Secretariat, which has called for a review of the practice, should hold a plebiscite, but that’s their prerogative.

If at the end of all this, the Sahtu decides to take the fracking plunge, who are Yellowknifers to tell them no?