Hydraulic fracturing is about to move into the Canadian Arctic, with companies exploring the region’s rich shale oil deposits. But many indigenous people and conservationists have serious concerns about the impact of fracking in more fragile northern environments.
by ed struzik
Among the dozens of rivers that flow unfettered through the Canadian North, the Natla and the Keele may be the most picturesque and culturally important. They are especially significant to the Dene people of the Sahtu region, which straddles the Arctic Circle in the Northwest Territories. Both of the rivers flow crystal clear out of the Mackenzie Mountains along the Yukon/Northwest Territories border before coming together in their final course to the Mackenzie River.
For hundreds — if not thousands — of years, the Mountain Dene people have been traveling upstream to salt licks that draw caribou, moose, and mountain sheep down from the high country in the early fall. For the Dene,
A Conoco-Phillips shale oil fracking site in the Sahtu region of Canada’s Northwest Territories.
it is the best opportunity to stock up on wild game, fish, and berries for the long winter.
Many Dene people living in Sahtu and in other parts of the Canadian North are concerned that this way of life may be at risk now that two energy companies have been given the go-ahead to begin horizontal fracking in a region just south of the Arctic Circle. Conoco-Phillips has already fracked two test wells in the Sahtu, and the company has plans to frack several more in the future.
With several other companies ready with plans of their own, the stakes are high. No one knows yet exactly how much shale oil and gas there is in the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and the territory of Nunavut. But the The Canol shale deposit could contain as much oil as the highly productive Bakken shale in the U.S. government of the Northwest Territories estimates that the Canol Shale underground deposit, which extends from the mountains along the Yukon border several hundred miles east towards Colville and Great Bear lakes, contains 2 to 3 billion barrels of recoverable oil, as much or more than in the highly productive Bakken formation in North Dakota.
Such potential reserves have drawn significant interest and mark the first time that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for oil and gas has moved this close to the Arctic Circle in Canada.
Critics fear that fracking could pollute groundwater and trigger gas releases and seismic activity. Scientists say that many sensitive ecosystems of northern Canada —which include tundra, peat bogs, fens, and permafrost zones — may be especially vulnerable to the large-scale disturbances that occur in areas of high fracking activity. Deborah Simmons, executive director of the Sahtu Renewable Resource Board, has expressed concerns about cleaning up oil and chemical spills in the region’s many wetlands.
Some also worry about the so-called “boomtown effect” that comes with rapid development in remote and unpopulated areas — a phenomenon that is swiftly changing parts of North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and other U.S. states affected by so-called “unconventional” drilling for oil and gas.