August 9, 2020

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Opinion

No debate on Manitoba's secret love affair

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/4/2015 (1950 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

IT could be easy to be environmentally smug in Manitoba. There are kilometres of intact boreal forest and pristine waters, unsullied by smog or oilsands or coal-fired power plants.

All the clean hydro power and UNESCO World Heritage sites and the moratorium on hog barns are certainly something to crow about. Algae in Lake Winnipeg? Please read these 78 press releases about how the government is working on it. In the meantime, let's talk about the new cosmetic-pesticide ban and how Manitoba has almost met the Kyoto targets.

What isn't talked about is something few inside the Perimeter Highway even know exists -- the booming oilpatch and the fact fracking produces nearly every barrel.

The oilpatch in western Manitoba is now a bigger revenue generator than mining. In the last five years alone, 2,100 new wells began production. In 2013, Manitoba pumped $6 billion in oil, nearly all using horizontal drilling. That involves shooting a mixture of water, chemicals and sand down a well at high pressure to fracture the surrounding rock, loosening oil or gas deposits that are then sucked up to the surface. This, by Manitoba standards, is a very lucrative industry that employs thousands and has brought an economic renaissance to towns such as Virden and Waskada. But it also carries significant environmental risk, to groundwater and to global emissions. While full or partial fracking moratoriums have made headlines in Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, New York, Pennsylvania and many other locales, the NDP government and the province's oil industry barely make a peep about our fracking practices.

Last year, the oil industry earned not one mention in Premier Greg Selinger's throne speech or in the budget address delivered by then-finance minister Jennifer Howard. It appears in virtually no news stories beyond those in the Brandon Sun. There are no chamber of commerce luncheons about it, no television ads promoting it, no big debates about it during elections. To most of the province, the oil industry is invisible.

When local environmental groups tried to change that this spring, industry and provincial government staff clammed up.

Because I've written a little about the province's oilpatch, and maybe because I'm an Albertan, I was recently asked to moderate two public forums -- one in February about the Energy East pipeline project and one planned for later this month about fracking.

The pipeline forum, hosted by several local groups such as the Wilderness Committee and Climate Change Connection, went ahead without any involvement from TransCanada. Despite much wooing and cajoling, the pipeline company declined to send anyone to speak on the panel, so the event was largely a preaching-to-the-choir affair instead of a real debate over the merits of the project.

And, just recently, organizers of the fracking forum cancelled their event entirely because they could barely get anyone from industry to answer the phone, let alone agree to attend a public discussion. The organizers of that event, to be held at a local church, made many calls and sent several emails over a period of weeks to Tundra, the Winnipeg-based firm owned by the Richardson family that's the major player in Manitoba's oilpatch. Often, said Carolyn Garlich, chairwoman of the First Unitarian Universalist Church's environmental committee, it was impossible to even get past the switchboard. Calls to the powerful Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers also went nowhere.

Organizers of the forum, who promised panellists equal time and respectful conversation, hoped to salvage the event by getting someone from the province's petroleum branch to speak. Another dead end. No one would agree to appear. That's a shame, because, in my limited experience speaking with the assistant deputy minister or the director of the branch, they've been nothing but reasonable and plain-spoken, making a convincing case about the safety and environmental regulations that are in place and the value of the industry.

It's not like the fracking forum would have been a slag-fest, where a bunch of radical enviro-zealots shouted down the suits from Tundra or from the province. We're talking about Unitarians and academics and people whose idea of a fun night is reading 700 pages of Public Utilities Board transcripts. In fact, given the fairly anemic state of our environmental lobby in Manitoba, I wish these groups were MORE radical and outspoken and aggressive.

Instead, we missed out on the start of a real debate about Manitoba's secret love affair with oil. We missed out on the chance to learn more about a highly technical industry that operates differently from the incredibly damaging ones in North Dakota and Pennsylvania. We missed out on a civil exchange of information and legitimate concerns.

Here's a worrying postscript: I asked staff at the Manitoba Eco-Network, one of the organizers of the scrapped fracking forum, to pitch this column to our editorial pages. They declined. They worried writing a blow-by-blow account of their failed attempt at hosting one little forum would be too partisan and put their charitable status in jeopardy. The Canada Revenue Agency is now auditing dozens of non-profits to ensure they aren't engaging in too much political activity, a crackdown many believe is designed to silence groups critical of the Harper government.

So, we're back to silence, which is just how government and the oil industry seem to prefer it.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

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