Moratoriums versus bans: what’s in a name?

The Yukon NDP has been hard at work casting itself as the only territorial party that will take a strong stance against fracking in the Yukon.

The Yukon NDP has been hard at work casting itself as the only territorial party that will take a strong stance against fracking in the Yukon. The Liberal pledge to put a “moratorium” on the controversial method of gas extraction isn’t good enough, according to the NDP. Only an all-out “ban” will suffice.

“Moratorium” and “ban” are indeed distinct terms with slightly different meanings. Banning implies something of permanence while placing a “moratorium” implies a willingness to continue studying it and potentially revisit it in the future.

But while the NDP is unquestionably talking a tougher talk on fracking, if we look behind the rhetoric and the semantics how much of a difference is there between the actual Liberal and NDP positions on fracking? Not much by my reading.

First, while “moratorium” leaves the door open a crack, the word doesn’t necessarily mean something brief or fleeting either. A moratorium can be intended as long term proposition with the strong potential of becoming permanent.

It is the latter I think the Liberals are speaking of when you consider the balance of their statements on the issue. They are on record stating repeatedly that it will not allow fracking in the Yukon. In an interview for Northwestel TV, leader Sandy Silver stated that the party has heard a “resounding no” from Yukoners on fracking, and that the “social license just isn’t there.” He has also made specific comments about the various environmental concerns the practice presents including the volume of water needed, the contamination by additives, and well integrity.

At worst, the party seems to be guilty of treating the question of the fracking’s safety as a scientific one with a scientific answer. This displeases those who see it as a moral crusade of good against the evil economic interests that want to destroy the world, even though both approaches — the scientific and the moral — lead to the same conclusion.

Liberal candidate John Streicker got himself into trouble with some anti-frackers several years ago for using similarly nuanced language in his presentation to the Select Committee on Hydraulic Fracturing. Rather than unequivocally stating that the practice should just never ever happen, Streicker laid out strict conditions that would need to be satisfied before it ought to be allowed — conditions which then and now were practically impossible to satisfy.

For some, Streicker’s statements were too equivocal, and he was castigated for not being a loyal devotee to the anti-fracking cause. It didn’t matter that the conditions Streicker had laid out were nearly impossible to meet and that he said he was against fracking.

Second, while some have made much of the fact that a “moratorium” implies a temporary hold on a practice, the word “ban” bears some scrutiny as well.

The reality is that the parliamentary principle that no government can bind a future government is a fundamental one in our political system. The NDP can “ban” fracking all it wants, but a future government of whatever stripe can come along and reverse such a ban (Hanson has admitted as much — Ed.). There is no magic wand that can make fracking proposals go away permanently. Preventing fracking in the territory will require ongoing vigilance by opponents.

The Liberals may be the authors of their own misfortune in a sense. If you have been paying close enough attention you may have noticed that the Liberals are implicitly giving support to the incorrect notion that governments can bind future governments.

They have navigated the politically thorny issue of carbon pricing by telling people on both sides of the issue that their hands are tied. To opponents they say that the feds are bringing in a carbon tax anyway so there is nothing they can do about it. And to those who want more immediate action they say that they are prevented from introducing a tax of there own because of the Taxpayers Protection Act – a statute from the 1990s that purports to prevent the government from introducing new taxes without a referendum.

The truth however is that the Taxpayers Protection Act would be no more binding on a territorial Liberal government that wanted to introduce carbon pricing than an NDP-imposed ban on fracking would be on a pro-fracking future government.

From a communications standpoint, choosing the term “moratorium” instead of “ban” may have been a decision the Liberals will come to regret. At the moment at least the NDP seems to be convincing some voters that the Liberals are weak and “wishy-washy” on fracking, as if there is some sort of hidden agenda to do a quick U-turn on the subject once in office.

But at the end of the day is there really a substantive difference between the two parties’ positions? I’m not convinced.

The Yukon Liberals have clearly committed to not allowing any fracking if they are elected. And while there might be a semantic difference between a “ban” and a “moratorium,” there isn’t much of a practical one.

Of greater concern to me than these semantic differences is the fact that, unlike the Liberals, the NDP has decided not to make carbon pricing revenue neutral. While no one seems to be pressing them on the issue, the effect of the NDP’s pledge to spend half of the revenue derived from carbon pricing on renewable energy development is to effectively raise taxes on Yukoners.

This means less money for us and more money for our already well financed territorial government. It also goes against the spirit of carbon pricing as being a way of sending behavior influencing price signals rather than as a revenue generator.

And on that issue, unlike fracking, there is a clear and undeniable difference between the positions of the two parties.

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