Liberals, NDP locked in semantic squabble over unlikely fracking

Fracking has emerged as a defining issue during this election campaign, especially for the two major parties that say they oppose it.

Fracking has emerged as a defining issue during this election campaign, especially for the two major parties that say they oppose it.

Throughout the campaign, the NDP has accused the Liberals of leaving the door open for hydraulic fracturing in the territory, while the Liberals insist they will not allow the controversial technology.

The difference comes down to the distinction between a legislated ban — which the New Democrats say they would enact — and an unlegislated moratorium, which the Liberals favour.

The NDP argues that a legislated ban holds more water than an unlegislated moratorium, which is by definition a temporary measure. The party also says a ban is harder to undo.

“Let’s be clear: a moratorium is weaker and can be undone much more easily than a legislated ban,” NDP Leader Liz Hanson said Tuesday in a statement. “This is clearly a political tactic to seem firm, but not rock the boat.”

But in practice, bans aren’t permanent either. Any majority government could repeal a legislated ban, though the NDP argues that a moratorium could be lifted with less public scrutiny.

The NDP also suggests a Liberal government might turn around and lift the moratorium after a few years in office.

“Yukoners… need to know how long their moratorium would be in place,” Hanson said. “They only say they would not issue permits.”

But on Tuesday, Liberal Leader Sandy Silver said he “will not lift the moratorium,” and his government will not allow fracking during this or future mandates.

“We won’t issue permits,” he said. “A Yukon Liberal government will not frack. And a Yukon Liberal government will put an immediate moratorium on fracking.”

At one point, Silver did say he might be interested in a referendum on the issue after five years. But he quickly put that aside, saying it’s not something the Liberals are proposing and reiterating that “a Yukon Liberal government will not frack, period.”

He claimed the Liberals favour a moratorium over a ban because it wouldn’t tie up time in the legislature and cost taxpayers money.

“In the end, both are just as binding,” he said. “There’s no wiggle room on that.”

In fact, the NDP has itself called for a moratorium on fracking as recently as May 2016.

“The Yukon NDP has been clear in our support of a moratorium on fracking in Yukon, and Yukoners want to know where their elected representatives stand,” NDP MLA Lois Moorcroft said during question period on May 26. “Does this Yukon Party government support a moratorium on fracking in Yukon?”

But in her statement on Tuesday, Hanson said the NDP’s position has “evolved” from a moratorium to a ban over time.

“The more we learn about it, the more doubt there is about its ability to ever be a safe option for resource extraction,” she said.

The News cannot find an occasion where Silver said whether his party supported a moratorium or a ban during the last legislative session. He did tell the house on April 12 that the Liberals “do not support fracking in the Yukon.”

But despite the partisan squabbling, both parties now say there will be no fracking in the Yukon under their watch.

All of that aside, the entire fracking debate may turn out to be a moot point, at least for the foreseeable future.

The only company with existing plans to drill for oil and gas in the Yukon is Northern Cross, which has submitted a proposal to drill up to 20 exploratory wells in the Eagle Plain basin near the Dempster Highway.

The company has no current plans to frack, though it hasn’t ruled out that possibility down the line.

But as the News reported last week, Northern Cross’s major Chinese investor, CNOOC, recently sold off its stake in the project. The company is currently tied up in court after filing for a judicial review of a decision by Yukon’s assessment board (YESAB) to require a more rigorous assessment of the proposal.

Even if the federal court sides with Northern Cross and YESAB eventually recommends that the project proceed, there’s no guarantee the company will find the financing it needs. Last week, president Richard Wyman told the News it’s possible Northern Cross might pack up and leave the territory, and said the Yukon isn’t a friendly place to do business.

If that happens, it’s unclear when fracking might become an actual issue the territory faces, instead of just an exercise in rhetoric.

Contact Maura Forrest at maura.forrest@yukon-news.com

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