The real question about fracking

Reasonable people can disagree on whether or not the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing can be safely regulated. That, however, isn't the real question at hand in the Yukon.

Reasonable people can disagree on whether or not the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing can be safely regulated. That, however, isn’t the real question at hand in the Yukon. Instead, it’s whether the Yukon Party government can be trusted to responsibly oversee such a risky activity.

Remember, this is a government that can’t even bring itself to acknowledge the difference between a real PhD and an obviously dodgy one granted by an unaccredited U.S. bible college, as we’ve seen with the recent debacle involving a senior manager in Yukon’s Department of Education. We won’t pretend to fully understand the reasoning behind this baffling behaviour, but our hunch is that it has much to do with a deputy minister following the premier’s cardinal rule of leadership: never, ever, under any circumstances, admit you’ve done anything wrong.

This is also a government that is happy to delegate important decisions to government officials, up until the moment our politicians learn that some supporters are unhappy, at which point these plans are hastily overturned. Such was the case, of course, with long-promised plans to build affordable housing in Whitehorse.

And this is a government that has cheered on changes now before Parliament to weaken the independence of the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board. Thanks to this short-sighted idiocy, Yukoners will soon have less reason to trust that assessments of risky projects, such as those involving fracking, will be properly done.

The Yukon Party laughably claims that the changes will, in fact, strengthen Yukon’s regulatory system. This is about as credible as the government’s claim that its plans for the Peel watershed are “balanced,” which is to say, not at all.

What the premier really means is that he’s happy that it will soon be easier for the territorial government to push through projects it likes. But this comes at the expense of potentially eroding the independence and credibility of the assessment board, through changes like the one that will give the federal or territorial minister the power to directly set the board’s policy.

The federal Conservatives and their Yukon Party allies all claim these changes were the result of long public consultations. This is simply untrue. Most of the real talks leading to these changes occurred in secret, involving only the territory, Ottawa, First Nations and industry boosters, leaving the broader public in the dark. Just as we saw with the Peel watershed mess, we now have First Nations threatening to sue over the shady dealings that led to this outcome.

In short, we have a territorial government that possesses a keen desire to overlook inconvenient facts, a tendency to buckle under pressure from lobbyists, and a distrust of impartial, arms-length assessment decisions. Does this sound like a government that possesses the kind of maturity required to deal with the serious environmental hazards that fracking may pose? Of course not.

That’s a problem, because there’s little doubt that the Yukon Party would like to see fracking in the territory, notwithstanding the fact that our leaders have yet to stick out its necks and say so. But soon they’ll have to get on with it, as the legislative committee charged with examining the issue is due to report back at the end of this sitting.

Expect the committee to duly note the long list of concerns shared by residents, the overwhelming majority of whom expressed strong opposition of fracking in the territory. Then our leaders are likely to say they’ll make sure any fracking receives plenty of serious oversight.

The trouble is, who will believe them? Why should anybody believe this “oversight” will be any more credible than the premier’s sense of “balance” in the Peel watershed or the “strengthening” of our regulatory regime? You can only utter so much vacuous nonsense before people stop believing you.

One company, EFLO Energy, has already made it clear that it needs to frack to get at most of the gas it is sitting on in Yukon’s southeast. When Liz Hanson, the leader of the NDP Opposition, recently raised this point in the legislature, the premier indignantly asked her why she was misleading the public. You can understand his concern, as that is generally his job. Pasloski went on to make it sound as if fracking is not being contemplated for this project – misrepresenting the facts in precisely the way he accused Hanson of doing.

In an alternate universe where our premier doesn’t treat the public like a bunch of idiots, it’s possible to imagine a leader making a plausible case that fracking could be safely regulated here. Maybe the leader would note that fracking is incredibly commonplace in North America, and that most of the doom-and-gloom stories cited by opponents only seem to occur rarely, in areas with long histories of oil-and-gas development, muddying the waters when it comes to identifying what caused contaminated water supplies.

Maybe he’d also note that Yukoners are accustomed to judging each mining project based on its individual merits; it would be strange to issue a blanket ban on fracking by comparison.

And perhaps he would observe that Yukoners will depend on fossil fuels to sustain their lifestyles for the foreseeable future, so that snubbing a local oil and gas industry rings of hypocrisy, and also denies residents the potential of some good-paying jobs.

It’s possible this pitch could even win over a jittery public if it came from responsible, sober-minded leaders who clearly put the broader public interest ahead of silly political games. But who are we kidding? That’s not who’s in charge here.