Northern Yukon First Nations oppose extension to oil and gas company's exploration permits

Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm poses for a photo in front of the Porcupine River in Old Crow on July 22. (Jackie Hong/CBC - image credit)
Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm poses for a photo in front of the Porcupine River in Old Crow on July 22. (Jackie Hong/CBC - image credit)

The chiefs of three northern Yukon First Nations say the territorial government should not have renewed two exploration permits held by an oil and gas company for the Eagle Plains area.

In a joint statement issued this month, the chiefs of Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in First Nation and the Na-Cho Nyäk Dun First Nation said the extension shouldn't have happened, and that they hope the government declines to extend several other permits held by Chance Oil and Gas Limited.

"We don't see the extension of these permits aligned with the prospects of a carbon-neutral future," Vuntut Gwitchin Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm said in an interview.

"We have a collective vision for the future that does not rely solely on oil and gas development — one that involves green and renewable energy and infrastructure," he continued, pointing to the goals set out in Our Clean Future, the Yukon government's plan to tackle climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.

"So, this is a matter for all Yukoners and not one that our nations or our community takes lightly."

Chance's permits, which are now valid until the end of August 2027, do not allow the company to begin commercial production and the Yukon has a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, also referred to as "fracking," in place for most of the territory.

However, Tizya-Tramm said the permits and the potential for future work have hung over the region for more than a decade now, and First Nations, as well as Yukoners at large, deserve certainty.

"There should not be an infinite clock that ticks for these projects," he said.

Climate crisis an 'existential threat' to First Nations, chief says

The chiefs's statement, meanwhile, says that "the health of the environment of northern Yukon is paramount and must be considered by all levels of government in making decisions regarding further oil and gas exploration in the region, including whether to extend expiring exploration permits."

It also describes protecting the Porcupine caribou herd, whose range includes Eagle Plains, upholding the "fabric, spirit and intent" of First Nations's final agreements and "facilitating concrete progress towards a low-carbon future" as "imperative."

"In the face of climate change, it is more important than ever to ensure any development within our traditional territories remains sustainable, and that we do not undermine the very ecological and social systems upon which our communities are dependent," said Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in Hähké (Chief) Roberta Joseph in the statement.

"We must do everything we can now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect biodiversity."

First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun Chief Simon Mervyn, meanwhile, said in the statement that the "climate crisis" presented an "existential threat" to all three northern First Nations.

Northern Cross
Northern Cross

"We hope Yukon Government is ready and willing to take the bold steps necessary to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and protect our collective future," he said.

Tiyza-Tramm, in his interview, said the First Nations are not opposed to industry or activity on their traditional territories, but that companies must approach their work in a respectful way that aligns with the values of the nations whose land they're on.

Chiefs's concerns not being ignored, minister says

John Streicker, Yukon energy, mines and resources minister, who signed off on the order extending two of Chance's permits, told the CBC that he's in regular contact with the chiefs and was aware of their concerns leading up to the extension.

While Streicker said he appreciated their belief that the permits should have been allowed to expire, he explained that he also had to balance other obligations when considering Chance's application for extensions.

"Under our laws, it's pretty typical that you extend the permits if basic criteria are met," he said, adding that the extensions come with the requirement for Chance to file annual reports with regards to the implementation of a First Nations communication and engagement plan.

Streicker also pointed to old test wells Chance previously drilled in the Eagle Plains area that he said he wanted to ensure are properly cleaned up.

"When you start withdrawing these permits the risk to whether companies work in good faith is always put at a bit of risk, so I think we're careful about tools we use to try and put pressure on companies," he said. "We try to work with them constructively to get to that remediation."

Streicker added that the chiefs's concerns weren't being completely ignored; while the government extended the terms on two of Chance's permits, it did not do so for seven other permits also included in Chance's request for extension.

Those permits are set to expire next August; Streicker said it was up to the company to re-apply for extensions if it doesn't want those permits to lapse.

Chance president Richard Wyman was not immediately available for comment, stating via email that he was travelling.