Northern leaders who went south for a fact-finding mission to a massive shale-oil field on the U.S./Canadian border came away excited with the economic potential, but some are still concerned about environmental risks of similar projects here.

The Bakken oil field stretches more than 500,000 square kilometres across North Dakota, Montana and parts of Saskatchewan that’s one of the richest sources of shale oil in North America.

More than 9,000 oil wells dot the landscape, and a group of Northern leaders toured the area recently to see what lessons can be learned from the area to take home to possibly develop shale deposits in the Sahtu region.

'More education needs to be done'- Greg Laboucan

Sahtu MLA Norman Yakeleya is one person who would like to see the same economic boom in his backyard.

"More than 200 people in the Sahtu are ready to work in the oil fields,” he said.

While nobody disputes the economic potential, others were concerned with what they didn’t see on the trip — any discussion about deleterious environmental impacts associated with hydraulic fracturing.

“The message we got from industry was ‘there are no impacts we are doing it better every day’,” Weledeh MLA Bob Bromley said. "There's some 800 waste water pits which contain fracking chemicals [and] many of those are overflowing —  sometimes 25 per cent,” Bromley said.

“We did not see one."

hi-nb-shale-rock-852

Shale rock such as this is rich in oil deposits, which can be extracted through a controversial process known as hydraulic fracturing. (CBC)

Bromley says the tour focused on how the industry operates and how First Nations are benefiting from shale development.

The MHA Nation — three affiliated tribes — earn royalties of about $25 million a month from shale projects on their land. But even eye-opening royalties like that aren't ebbing one Canadian community's fears about contamination.

Fort Good Hope in the Sahtu sits down stream from Imperial Oil's operations in Norman Wells.

“In Saskatchewan, they have a huge library about underground streams,” says Greg Laboucan, Chief of the K'asho Go'tine Charter Community Council. “My understanding here in the NWT we don't have a lot of that. More education needs to be done."

Complex issue

Only one company plans to do hydraulic fracturing this winter in the Sahtu, so large-scale shale development is still many years away.

Still, those on the tour said the trip was worthwhile. It opened their eyes not only to the economic potential, but also all the work that needs to be done to prepare — everything from new roads to housing, to programs to deal with the social problems that come with development.

Some just want to hear more about what the N.W.T. government plans to do about any possible downsides.