Untapped potential: Yukon gov't crafting legislation on geothermal energy

Haines Junction, Yukon, is located near the Denali Fault, a hotspot for geothermal energy potential. (Philippe Morin/CBC - image credit)
Haines Junction, Yukon, is located near the Denali Fault, a hotspot for geothermal energy potential. (Philippe Morin/CBC - image credit)

As early as next fall, the Yukon could have laws in place that govern the extraction of geothermal energy for the first time.

While it's a nascent type of renewable energy in Canada, Energy Minister John Streicker told CBC News the Yukon is replete with the resource, which is mainly found in the southwestern and south-central regions.

"We're also working to move off of fossil fuels and to transition our energy economy," Streicker said.

Geothermal energy is derived from the naturally occurring heat from the earth's core. Essentially, super hot water can be harvested, with the steam used to drive turbines, generating electricity. Geothermal energy can also be used for district heating.

Harnessing geothermal energy falls in line with the Yukon government's plan to reduce territory-wide carbon emissions by 45 per cent by the end of the decade. Much of that work involves pivoting away from using fossil fuels.

There's at least one geothermal project in the works in the territory. A couple years ago, the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation entered into an agreement with an Alberta-based company to get at reservoirs beneath its land.

While there is legislation that guides mining and oil and gas development, however dated, there has never been the equivalent in the Yukon.

Streicker said with that, questions abound.

"You need to know how people can apply, you need to know what types of things we need to be concerned about with, say, how the drilling takes place and the type of footprint that it has, especially around aquifers," he said.

Tapping into geothermal reservoirs still requires drilling deep into the earth.

"It has a footprint, but it's much, much, much smaller than other resource development," Streicker said.

'There needs to be a lot of careful thinking'

Lewis Rifkind, mining analyst with the Yukon Conservation Society, wrote a letter to the Yukon government as part of its public engagement on creating the new legislation.

In it, he states there are numerous things the Yukon government needs to consider, including cumulative impacts, which can be "extremely negative" and on par with mining. As well, Rifkind states black shale can be dug up as part of the process and can contain radioactive uranium.

Rifkind states the government needs to ensure adequate financial security, should companies decide to bail on the venture and that fair royalties are paid to First Nations.

All in all, Rifkind told CBC News he's "cautiously optimistic" about the prospect of a full-fledged geothermal industry in the Yukon.

"Geothermal energy or heating is a good thing, don't get us wrong," he said. "However, it does involve disturbances to the land and it can involve disturbances under the land, and these have to be taken into account when developing this sort of energy.

"I think there's a lot of careful thinking that has to be done on this to make sure we don't repeat some of the mistakes we've made in the past, with quartz, placer and oil and gas legislation."

The Yukon may have reservoirs equal to top producers 

The territory could be well-positioned to become a major producer of geothermal energy. That has a lot to do with geography.

Maurice Colpron, with the Yukon Geological Survey, told CBC News there's a lot potential near the Denali Fault, a large fracture in the earth's crust that runs through Burwash Landing and Haines Junction.

In the Yukon, data shows 12 kilometres down, there are hotspots in the area that run a consistent 580 C. While that temperature is much too hot for the purposes of generating electricity, crews will compensate by not drilling farther than two kilometres — a sweet spot for temperatures that can generate electricity.

"That's really what we're trying to map in the Yukon," Colpron said.

"The initial data that we have suggests that the kind of heat that we see in the crust in Yukon could be comparable to what we see in Nevada and Utah."

Colpron said those areas are producing upward of 30 per cent of geothermal energy globally.

"It's a big game."