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In fracking fracas, enviros turn on one another

John Streicker's weakness as a politician has always been that he is far more reasonable than many of his followers realize. On the subject of oil and gas development, this has led to some sparks lately.

John Streicker’s weakness as a politician has always been that he is far more reasonable than many of his followers realize. On the subject of oil and gas development, this has led to some sparks lately.

In a long-winded commentary recently published by the Whitehorse Star, Peter Becker made some flamboyant and, as far as we can tell, unfounded accusations of Streicker, who is described as a paid oil-and-gas lobbyist and a “Manchurian gas candidate.”

What had Streicker done to draw such accusations? Well, the city councillor and climate change expert was guilty of trying to be a good empiricist. That didn’t sit well with some of the territory’s more virulent anti-frackers, who, in their fervour for their cause, seem to mistake anyone who doesn’t recite their mantra that “fracking must be banned in the Yukon” as an enemy.

This is a shame, for Streicker has some important contributions to the oil and gas debate, and by tarring him as a traitor to the environment, opponents of oil and gas development do a disservice to their own cause.

In his submission to the Yukon legislature’s standing committee on oil and gas development, Streicker doesn’t outright demand that legislators ban fracking. Presumably, this is because he understands that’s a decision for our MLAs, and not him, to rightly make. But if you were to ask Streicker, as the News has, where he stands on fracking, he is clear in opposing it.

As well, his recommendations to the standing committee propose a number of tight restrictions that could very well produce a similar effect as an outright ban.

Streicker says that the Yukon should establish baseline water quality levels at any development, and to then monitor these levels with the requirement that groundwater pollution be essentially kept at zero.

Streicker also suggests the territory should set tough limits on the amount of so-called fugitive emissions. That refers to gases, particularly methane, that escape into the atmosphere during production.

Because methane is an especially potent greenhouse gas, only a small quantity of the gas needs to escape to make natural gas, which is touted as the cleanest of fossil fuels, as dirty as alternatives.

As far as Streicker could tell from his research, no jurisdiction has required industry to quantify and regulate fugitive emissions. If our legislators were to adopt these rules, it’s entirely possible that industry would balk and set up shop elsewhere.

Yet, for Becker and other shriller opponents of fracking, suggesting such rules is no different than lobbying in favour of fracking. You are either with them or against them, it seems.

Don Roberts, who helps head up Yukoners Concerned About Oil and Gas Development, has taken a similar swing at Streicker. In a recent open letter, he asks how Streicker, a past Green Party candidate and party president, could seek anything but an outright fracking ban, when that is what the party leader has sought.

You would think someone like Roberts, who as an MLA quit the Yukon Liberal Party in a spat with its leader of the day, would appreciate the Green Party’s willingness to tolerate diversity of thought. Apparently not. Instead, he’s busy making the same insinuation as Becker, which is that Streicker is some sort of environmental sell-out.

Streicker has found himself at odds with green orthodoxy before. For example, he views nuclear power as a necessary evil if we want to lower the world’s carbon emissions. It’s a stance that makes a lot of sense if you accept that most people aren’t willing to drastically reduce their energy consumption, but one at odds with the long-held opposition to nuclear power by many environmentalists.

Reasonable people can disagree over whether the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing can be safely regulated. It’s not hard to find scary stories associated with the practice. It’s also not hard to notice that fracking is commonplace in much of North America, and there have been relatively few health or environmental scares at most sites where it has occurred.

Anyone who hasn’t made up their minds on the issue, meanwhile, will be frustrated to soon realize how much partisans on both sides are prone to make exaggerated claims.

Many readers will be familiar with the opening scene to the documentary Gasland, a film that is often cited by fracking foes. It shows a Colorado man setting his faucet on fire. Nearby drilling is faulted in the film.

In fact, Colorado officials concluded otherwise. They found the homeowner’s water well had been drilled through a naturally occurring pocket of methane.

To further complicate things, methane actually has been found to migrate into groundwater near some fracking sites where the wellbores had not been properly cemented. This problem seems to be solved with better sealing around the wellbore.

Critics, however, point out that leaky pipes seem to be far from unusual in the gas industry. They doubt the ability of drillers to build wells that can be trusted to remain permanently tight, and of regulators to sniff out scofflaws.

There are also many other concerns associated with fracking, from the vast amounts of water consumed to the poisonous additives used in fracking fluid.

None of these worries are trivial. But our politicians will have to weigh them against the potential jobs and royalties that could flow from development.

It’s yet another sign of the Yukon’s prosperity that we can afford to contemplate banning an entire industry. We can thank our generous federal transfer payments for that.

It’s also hard to be too sanctimonious about oil and gas extraction as long as most of us depend on the stuff to fuel our cars, heat our homes and haul our food and other necessities up the Alaska Highway.

The real solution to curbing the amount of carbon being burned isn’t to fight local development, because fossil fuels will continue to be extracted elsewhere to support our lifestyles.

Instead, Canada needs to put a price on carbon, whether as a simple tax or a fancy cap-and-trade system. Of course, when the Liberals’ Stephane Dion proposed such a measure in 2008, he faced a disastrous showing at the polls. Most Canadians like the idea of greening our economy, provided they don’t need to pay one penny for it to happen. It would be nice to see more people do as Streicker has, and champion this unpopular but necessary idea.

The anti-fracking crusaders, meanwhile, should be careful to remember that by attacking people like Streicker for daring to express thoughts that don’t easily boil down to a bumper sticker, they only manage to damage their own credibility.