Protesters outside the legislature called for a fracking moratorium on Tuesday – a call the minister responsible refused to consider.
Hydraulic fracturing has been touted as the only means of extracting billions of barrels of oil thought to lie under the Northwest Territories’ Sahtu region, and the territorial government is in the process of drafting regulations to govern fracking in the NWT.
However, protesters and some politicians believe the government has skipped an important question: whether the territory should entertain fracking at all.
“The idea that we’re going to talk about how to regulate it, before we talk about whether to do it, I think is offensive to a lot of people,” said protest organizer Ben McDonald, representing Fracking Action North.
“It seems like the government doesn’t want to give us a choice.
“The evidence is pretty clear: fossil fuels that have not yet been developed should stay in the ground. That’s my own perspective. The evidence is we’re already past, or very near, the tipping point where there’s going to be drastic climate change.”
A public vote on fracking has been suggested as this fall’s territorial election approaches.
“We need to be able to ask those tough questions,” said Yellowknife city councillor Dan Wong, who appeared at the protest.
“Should we frack or should we not frack? A growing body of facts says fracking is a very risky business.
“What is the acceptable level of risk we’re willing to take with our land, air, water, and people?”
Read: Fracking: Is the territory asking the right question?
Read: ‘Staggering’ NWT oil reserve revealed – but it’ll need fracking
Inside the legislature, similar questions were posed of industry minister David Ramsay by a succession of MLAs.
Ramsay refused to directly answer calls for a moratorium that would see any suggestion of fracking suspended until a full review is undertaken.
Instead, he insisted northern residents can already influence the way applications to frack in the NWT are handled.
“Every application is scrutinized by arm’s-length regulatory boards that hear directly from the public,” said Ramsay. “They make decisions and set requirements for every single project based on the specifics of each proposal, recognized best practices, current science and public views.
“Ruling out one particular technique is like telling a doctor they can only ever use general anesthetic for a procedure, when local anesthetic or even an aspirin might be more appropriate.
“It is more responsible to use the best approach for each job and make sure we, as a government, have created the best rules to manage that, and that is what we are trying to do here.”
There was little sign of agreement from some regular MLAs sitting opposite Ramsay.
“It’s possible that fracking can be done without serious damage to our environment and our residents. But to date, the government has not proven that,” said Frame Lake MLA Wendy Bisaro.
“A conversation on fracking has not been held and it must be held. The minister might be surprised to find that – after proper research and review, consultation and conversations – NWT residents support fracking.”
In full: Tuesday’s fracking debate at the legislature on OpenNWT
Hay River representative Robert Bouchard noted a “natural moratorium” was already in place, given the current weakness of the oil industry, and called on the government to exploit the time granted by that lull.
Weledeh MLA Bob Bromley went further, demanding that the government explore other options entirely.
“Abandoning already stranded fossil fuels and quickly positioning ourselves to take advantage of renewable opportunities is the obvious and compulsory answer,” he said.
Ramsay remained steadfast.
“Northerners have the ability to provide input into the assessment of every application, at many stages of the process that we have in place here in the NWT – through intervening in the process, through submitting comments on the public record, to making comments at public hearings,” said the minister. “I have every confidence in our NWT regulatory system.
“There are jurisdictions in this country that do allow the process. Alberta, Saskatchewan, British Columbia – even the Yukon recently made a decision to allow fracking in a small portion of the territory.
“We want to be a ‘have’ territory. We want to have jobs. We want to have a diversified economy. We need jobs in regions that currently have high unemployment rates.
“We can manage this resource. We’re in the risk-management business. Nothing happens without some risk, but you have to weigh the benefits with those risks, and we believe we can do that. We believe we can manage it.”