fracking is a foregone conclusion

We thought we'd save our MLAs the bother of convening their new all-party committee on hydraulic fracturing, staging public consultations and eventually producing a report.

EDITORIAL

We thought we’d save our MLAs the bother of convening their new all-party committee on hydraulic fracturing, staging public consultations and eventually producing a report.

They’re busy people, after all. So here’s what they’ll eventually say.

The Yukon Party believes that hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, can be safe, provided there are the right regulations and oversight in place. They’ll assure that these safeguards will be created.

Liberal Sandy Silver and Independent Darius Elias will say pretty much the same thing, too, after offering token objections that the government can incorporate into its plans.

The NDP alone will dissent. It believes that fracking is inherently risky. The Opposition will note fracking’s range of scary-sounding potential consequences, from small earthquakes to groundwater pollution. Its member to the all-party committee, Jim Tredger, will assert that these risks outweigh the potential gains of cheap energy and well-paying jobs.

These conclusions will only be fully expressed after the public has been dutifully consulted. But it seems pretty clear this is where everyone stands.

Since at least the last territorial election, the Yukon Party has been bullish about promoting a local oil and gas industry. Much of the oil and gas wealth in the territory’s southeast lies within shale deposits, which is best exploited by fracking. This involves blasting pressurized water and chemicals deep underground in order to release gas pockets trapped within the rock.

The NDP Opposition, meanwhile, proposed last spring that the territory ban fracking. It spent much of the legislative sittings last year ruminating on how the practice could wreck the Yukon’s environment.

So it’s more than a little funny when either side feigns outrage when they’re accused of having made their minds up on the matter, when it’s clear that both have.

The only positions that require a bit of inference are those of Silver and Elias. Lately, Silver has engaged in a make-believe fight to ensure the government agrees to something it would never actually object to – to ban fracking until the committee completes its work.

But, in the end, we suspect both Silver and Elias won’t back a permanent, territory-wide ban on fracking. Both are too keen to appear friendly to business.

So, regardless of how big a fuss Don Roberts and his band of anti-fracking protesters will kick up at public meetings, the reality is that fracking will be allowed. Whatever public meetings will be held on the subject will merely serve as a pressure valve, allowing malcontents to blow off steam.

Whether we will actually see fracking performed in the Yukon anytime soon is far from clear. North America is currently awash in cheap natural gas, and low prices may make any projects in far-flung Yukon uneconomic, at least for the next while.

That could hold back plans to develop Eagle Plain, off the Dempster Highway. That’s where Northern Cross (now majority-owned by one of China’s oil and gas giants, CNOOC) is continuing its exploration for oil and gas.

There are also political impediments. The Kaska’s Chief Liard McMillian makes no effort to conceal his wholesale opposition to fracking – if allowed, he warns it would turn his homeland in the southeast into a “toilet bowl.”

The Yukon Party may have neutered McMillan’s ability to veto oil and gas projects, but he still has plenty of weapons at his disposal, including lawsuits and roadblocks. It’s unlikely any company would want to invest in the area with such threats looming. That includes the new owners of Yukon’s only producing gas well, at Kotaneelee, who want to begin plumbing nearby shale deposits.

But it seems safe to say that fracking will eventually be done in the Yukon. It’s an incredibly common practice across North America, and our neighbours in British Columbia and Alberta allow it. What remains difficult to forecast is what environmental impacts this will entail.

Partisans on both sides of the fracking debate will tell you otherwise, with some assuring safety, and others assuring doom. We’re afraid we aren’t blessed with that much clairvoyance.

Maybe a company ends up fracking in the territory and the damage is negligible, with nearly all the nasty chemicals safely buried a mile beneath the earth. Or maybe a big environmental mess will result.

Maybe our officials will end being duped by a shady company that cuts corners. Or maybe the Yukon’s small number of potential oil and gas projects will make it manageable to keep a wary eye on industry.

Maybe groundwater contamination can be avoided with the careful sealing of well casings and other safety measures. Or maybe, if methane gas or fracking chemicals do pollute the water table, this just won’t matter much, because it will occur in remote pockets of the territory, far from drinking water wells.

What is clear is that the government is willing to take this calculated risk. A ban on fracking isn’t an option that’s actually on the table. (Remember: Resources Minister Brad Cathers promised to discuss the risks and benefits of fracking, not to actually consider a ban of it.) So we had better hope that the optimists are right that fracking can be done safely, and that our territorial officials figure out how.

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