(Photo: Queen's Park, Toronto, Ontario)

Pink Palace Toronto 2010 by Benson Kua \ CC BY 2.0 Wikimedia Commons

A private member’s bill from Toronto-area NDP MPP Peter Tabuns to ban fracking in the province passed second reading Thursday by a 29-18 vote with support from the governing Liberals.

“Water or gas — that’s our choice,” Tabuns explained to the House. “We can’t have both.”

Threats to groundwater contamination as found in Pennsylvania this month; links to triggering earthquakes in Ohio and Alberta; questions over the perilous, ponzi-like investment structure supporting the fracking industry. It all led Tabuns to believe the substantial risks the sector poses for Ontario far outweigh any potential rewards in jobs or cheaper natural gas prices.

Despite overwhelmingly voting in favour of the legislation, some Liberal MPPs suggested the bill was not only unnecessary but harmful. Mississauga-area MPP Bob Delaney reminded the House that 50 per cent of Ontarians currently heat their homes with natural gas from shale deposits in other jurisdictions. He questioned how rational it is to risk growth in the province’s oil and gas sector by banning the practice forever. Delaney later voted against the bill, the lone Liberal to do so.

The government's strongest argument against the bill was that no fracking applications are currently before the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to look for shale gas. If and when an official application is made, MNRF Minister Bill Mauro assured the House the government would not approve any requests without proper consultation with the public, Aboriginal groups and other stakeholders.

Tabuns’ bill would ensure that no future government could change their minds and open Southern Ontario up to hydraulic fracturing beneath Lake Erie.

But “that is no protection at all,” Tabuns said. It leaves the regulation of a harmful resource practice up to the whim of the government, and governments change, he said. Attitudes within governments also shift over time. Tabuns’ bill would ensure that no future government could change their minds and open Southern Ontario up to hydraulic fracturing beneath Lake Erie, located at the northwestern tip of the highly-productive Marcellus Shale deposit stretching from Tennessee to New York.

Moreover, while it’s true no formal applications to explore or drill in Ontario have been tabled, Tabuns told A\J he has spoken with numerous energy companies who claim they are actively talking about shale gas extraction with North American governments, Ontario included. It may simply be a matter of time before companies look to tap Ontario’s gas potential, however commercially uneconomical it may currently appear. 

Tabuns’ bill has already touched a nerve with energy-sector players in and out of the province. The Ontario Energy Association called the bill “premature” and “unnecessary” while Union Gas, a $5.8-billion subsidiary of Houston-based Spectra Energy, recently blanketed MPPs with a letter blasting Bill 82 and urging all members to vote against it.

The bill simply stokes “fear and uncertainty” about natural gas, reads the May 5th letter from Union Gas government affairs director Matthew Gibson. Moreover, regulation around natural gas extraction “belongs in jurisdictions where that practice is actually taking place,” they note.

Not according to Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller. In his 2012-2013 Annual Report, Ontario’s environmental watchdog argued it would be “wise and prudent for regulators to develop rules before allowing industry to proceed.” The experience in Quebec, where unspecific oil and gas rules proved inadequate to govern fracking, shows how critical it is to get ahead of the game.  

“Sufficient regulation is necessary for safeguarding properties, citizens and the environment,” Miller wrote.

Predictably, Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives came out strongly against the Bill, positioning themselves as defenders of the province’s oil and gas sector.

Bob Bailey, a Tory MPP from Ontario’s refining capital, Sarnia, said Bill 82 “sends the wrong message to industry” that millions in investment and thousands of jobs are unwanted. Former Tory leader Tim Hudak opined that he wished there was more fracking potential in Ontario while John Yakabuski warned if the province closed the door on fracking now it may never be pried open again.

Despite passing second reading, Tabuns’ legislation still faces a steep climb toward becoming law. The Liberals enjoy a majority government, controlling all bills that come before committee. Bill 82 may languish on the order paper rather than see the light of day at General Government committee.

See where fracking is happening across Canada in our Fracking Hotspots map.

Andrew is an award-winning environmental writer based in Toronto with a Masters in Geography from the University of Toronto. Andrew covers environmental politics for the A\J Current Events blog and on his own blog, The Reeves Report. Follow him on Twitter.

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