Can’t be coy about fracking forever

This past week the Yukon legislature's select committee regarding the risks and benefits of hydraulic fracturing released its final report.

This past week the Yukon legislature’s select committee regarding the risks and benefits of hydraulic fracturing released its final report. In the dry and predictable tradition of such studies, it stated the obvious (by saying stuff like the government should respect its agreements with First Nations) and recommended further study of the issue.

The governing Yukon Party was quick to lambast what it has taken to calling the “Opposition coalition” for “siding together to stifle yet another industry in Yukon” and not waiting “for the committee’s work to be done before taking a position.” In contrast, the government has promised to “take the necessary time to do an in-depth analysis.”

The accusation that the NDP in particular has jumped the gun in coming out against fracking is a little silly. Two NDP members were on the committee, so the released report would not have contained any surprises for them. And, since the committee was charged to “consider whether hydraulic fracturing can be done safely if properly regulated,” it can’t be a surprise that the New Democrats have formed a conclusion on just that.

Sometimes you have just heard enough information to make a decision. If I am considering buying a house and a home inspector’s report tells me that the foundation is cracked, I’m really not that interested in the debate over whether the roof also needs to be redone. I’ve heard enough, and I walk away. I suspect the NDP’s thinking on fracking falls along similar lines.

But it’s the Yukon Party’s lack of a position that I find most interesting.

Is “take the necessary time to do an in-depth analysis” politician-speak for “be coy on the subject and wait until after the next election to reveal our intentions”? I hope not, but the Yukon Party has certainly set the stage to do just that.

The committee agreed that there needs to be further study and the collection of baseline data on, among other things, the impact of fracking on ground water, permafrost, seismic activity, overall greenhouse gas emissions, wildlife and human health. Essentially the committee has called for further study on pretty well every concern raised with respect to fracking – hardly a quick and simple task, especially considering the glacial pace at which we are accustomed to the Yukon government operating.

Further study is not necessarily a bad thing. The burden of proof clearly lies with those who would like to conduct fracking to prove that it is safe. When you propose pumping various unidentified chemicals into the earth, it is on you to show that those chemicals won’t make its way into my drinking water, not on me to show that they will.

But the question is when will the Yukon Party have enough information to make a decision? Before the next election? After?

I would implore the Yukon Party not to do what it did with the Peel watershed. If it wants to take further time to study fracking, by all means it should do so. An important decision like this should not be taken lightly.

But make sure you respect the voters. It is clear that there is significant, palpable opposition to fracking in the territory, and before we allow it to take place within our borders the voters should get an opportunity to weigh in through a territorial election.

The election of the Yukon Party back in 2011 is not a mandate for fracking, and nor will an election in 2015 or 2016 serve as such a mandate if the government is coy about its intentions until after it is done.

Voters should get to weigh in on the basis of clear options conveyed in an honest and forthright manner by their politicians without the usual platitudes and generalities. Before the last election we knew little more about the government’s plan for the Peel than that it wanted the draft plan prepared by the commission to be simplified, and more “balanced” – whatever that means.

Before the next election we should receive from the Yukon Party either a clear position on fracking in the Yukon or a promise not to make a decision until after a subsequent election. Without one or the other, it will ring hollow if the government claims to be defending the right of the “democratically elected Yukon government” to allow fracking in the territory, as it is now doing with the Peel.

Between elections the practical reality is that (subject to consultation with affected First Nations) the Yukon government has “the authority to make final decisions on public lands.” But we should expect our politicians to treat democracy as a principle and not simply a process. It is the people, not the government, that should have final say.

This is an issue which we should have an opportunity to vote on. We can only hope that the Yukon Party does the right thing.

Kyle Carruthers is a born and raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.

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