Opponents to hydraulic fracturing in the Sahtu want residents to have the last word on the controversial process and the future of the Canol shale play.
“If the people of the Sahtu can hold a referendum on alcohol, then why not hydraulic fracturing? It’s even more important to the health of the communities,” said Sahtu resident Sheila Karkagie, making a pointed reference to a recent campaign championed by Sahtu MLA Norman Yakeleya.
During the last legislative session, MLAs gave Sahtu residents the power to dictate daily alcohol purchases in Norman Wells, the community at the centre of the Canol shale play.
The government can order a vote on booze sales if it receives resolutions within a six-month period from councils representing at least three of the five Sahtu communities, and more than half the region’s population.
“If we get a vote I think there would be no fracking at all,” said Karkagie, who is behind a petition in the region collecting signatures of those opposed to fracking.
“There is so much opposition, and only a little handful of leaders on the Tulita Land and Financial Corp. made the decision for us. They own businesses and stand to benefit, so they were in a conflict of interest. This is too big a decision for them to make for us.”
Karkagie was called home from a camp job in Alberta last summer by her mother, Madeline, who urged her to speak out against fracking.
“Who would give our land and water for money? The oil companies will only be here until they ruin the land, then they will go. That’s like our back yard. We hunted there and trapped. They built a landing strip in an area where moose calved. It’s our freezer. You have to start talking now,” Karkagie’s mother told her.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, Karkagie gathered 200 names on a petition in Tulita that would suspend fracking until there is a region-wide vote. Gerald Manual circulated a similar petition in Fort Good Hope that drew 900 signatories.
“But we were told that it was too late,” Karkagie said.
Discouraged, they set the petition aside. Since the death of her mother, who was 97, on Dec. 29, Karkagie has picked up the thread and renewed her efforts to gather names in Tulita and Deline as well.
The petitions will arrive on MLAs’ desks in time for the opening of the Legislative Assembly in February – too late to stop ConocoPhillips from making history with the first wells in the Northwest Territories employing the controversial process.
A safety inspection delayed ConocoPhillips for a week in early December. Operations were shut down after a worker was injured, but the company still expects to complete its two exploratory wells by the end of January.
Karkagie believes the two exploratory wells are just the first round in a larger and longer struggle.
The active lease holders in the Canol – Husky, MGM Energy and ConocoPhillips – have said that horizontal drilling using multistage hydraulic fracturing is the only way the shale will give up the oil, and that they support a full review at – just not prior to – exploration.
Exploitation of the Canol Shale, which industry experts estimate could surpass the Bakken field that straddles North Dakota, Saskatchewan and Alberta, will be the first major development to be considered by the new regulatory scheme to be established in the wake of devolution in April.
Karkagie can count on support from NGOs like Alternatives North and the Council of Canadians, and has an ally in the legislature, with Weledeh MLA Bob Bromley offering advice on how to use the legislature’s online petition system.
“Besides the many, many people in the Sahtu who are becoming upset, there are also many organizations and individuals in Yellowknife and across the NWT who have grave concerns about the direction and pace this exploitation is taking, and the promotional role our government is pursuing,” Bromley said in an email.
“While jurisdictions like Newfoundland, an oil and gas state, and Dallas in the heart of Texas, are making decisions for a moratorium or a ban on fracking, this government is blindly supporting it, even when the permit conditions we seek are ignored,” he wrote.
Bromley said he was “flabbergasted” when ConocoPhillips received its permits for fracking without an environmental assessment and that others with the power to request a review did not step in to do so.
“When we rush into these things, we are setting ourselves up for future delays, regrets and costs that shouldn’t happen. We are seeing that now, as people in the Sahtu begin to learn what this sort of exploitation actually involves, and the threats and costs it demands to their land, water, air and culture,” he said.
Anti-fracking sentiments could spell trouble for Sahtu MLA Norman Yakeleya, who has in recent months supported exploration and development of the Canol Shale. The petitioners potentially outnumber all of the ballots cast in the Sahtu in the last territorial election.