The Yukon government has agreed to a public discussion about the risks and benefits of hydraulic fracturing before any permits are issued in the territory.
Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is a method of extraction whereby pressurized water, sand and chemicals are blasted deep into the ground to release natural gas trapped within shale rock.
The practice has been associated with drinking-water contamination in some places where it has been done.
A few dozen concerned citizens showed up to witness the debate on fracking in the legislature Wednesday. Many donned “Protect the Peel” T-shirts.
While previous debates on the subject had been characterized by accusations and division, this one revealed a more conciliatory Yukon Party.
The motion under debate was put forward by NDP MLA Jim Tredger. He called for an immediate ban, a rigorous scientific review and a full public consultation on fracking before it is allowed in the territory.
He supported his motion with an impassioned, two-hour speech.
“Sometimes – I shouldn’t say sometimes – always elders’ words guide us,” said Tredger. “I can remember being at a meeting with an elder near Carmacks, and somebody said to her, ‘How can you not want oil and gas production when you drive a truck, and you heat your car or your house?’ She sort of chuckled and said, ‘How can you drive a truck if you don’t have clean air and clean water?’”
Energy Minister Brad Cathers has responded to calls for a ban in the past by saying that there are no immediate plans to frack in the Yukon, and the NDP is being intentionally alarmist and divisive.
On Wednesday, however, he acknowledged the need for greater regulatory clarity around fracking. The absence of a ban does not automatically mean that a practice will be permitted, he said.
Accordingly, Cathers proposed amendments to the motion, and called instead for more clarity around assessment for oil and gas projects, rigorous scientific review of projects at the time they are proposed, and an informed public dialogue on the risks and benefits of fracking conducted in collaboration with the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and other stakeholders before any licences are issued.
But the NDP were not happy with the re-write, and several members stood to oppose it.
Liberal Leader Sandy Silver urged them to recognize the common ground that had been reached.
“Today alone, the nature of the fracking debate in the Yukon has changed dramatically. The minister of Energy, Mines and Resources and the government announced for the first time, that I’m aware of, that this government is open to new regulations regarding fracking.”
He supported the amendments to the motion.
The legislature adjourned before a vote could be taken on the amendment or the motion.
By Thursday, the NDP had changed their tune.
“Yesterday the minister of Energy, Mines and Resources said to this House that his government is committed to an informed public dialogue about the oil and gas industry, including risks and benefits of hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, and to conducting this informed public dialogue before any regulatory approvals or permitting allows the use of fracking in Yukon,” said NDP Leader Liz Hanson.
“We are pleased that the minister has agreed to a de facto moratorium on fracking until a public consultation is complete.”
Cathers did not answer her question as to when the consultation will take place and what it will look like. Instead, he chose to bring attention to the NDP’s flip flop.
“We see the leader of the NDP consistently focused on trying to polarize Yukoners. That’s her objective.”
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