Bruce Bisset: Oil report a well of concern

By Bruce Bisset

PCE Jan Wright is, like most high-level bureaucrats, generally cautious and concise in her presentation. Photo / Paul Taylor
PCE Jan Wright is, like most high-level bureaucrats, generally cautious and concise in her presentation. Photo / Paul Taylor

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment's final report on the oil and gas industry is a damning indictment of a cavalier industry and the "free for all" attitude of New Zealand's regulators - but that is, of course, not how it's being played.

No. With carefully-neutered understatement, the relevant Ministers have called it merely a "useful contribution" - the equivalent of a pat on the head for PCE Jan Wright whilst implying the report will be subtly forgotten so the oil companies can pursue extraction of our fossil fuels however they wish.

Similarly, most commentators have trumpeted the fact Dr Wright does not call for a moratorium on fracking, while glossing over her major and very pressing concerns as mere tinkering with regulation.

Business as usual, in short.

But the picture the report actually paints is of an industry rapaciously unconstrained and, worse, a governance system (national and local) both completely unprepared for an oil boom and almost bereft of any meaningful law by which to manage one.

Dr Wright is, like most high-level bureaucrats, generally cautious and concise in her presentation. So a report peppered with adjectives such as "disappointing", "not tenable", and "extraordinarily permissive" should ring alarm bells for any objective observer.

It's not possible, here, to give what is an excellent and comprehensive review the in-depth analysis it deserves, so I'll just highlight some bits of especial concern.

First, it's clear the existing Taranaki industry is a complete shambles, from the lack of need for a consent to drill most oil wells in the first place, through lack of environmental considerations, failure to monitor effects, and dubious unsupervised methods of waste disposal.

Dr Wright finds various parts of Taranaki's management regime, at both regional and district council level, "remarkable" (in the negative sense), "surprising", and "clearly out of step with best practice".

Noting that most New Zealand councils make no distinction between drilling for water or drilling for oil, and that no two councils have the same set of rules, nevertheless the report is scathing of the fact Taranaki's councils apply wide variations in conditions for different well consents, as guided by industry consultants.

"For the concerned citizen, such arbitrariness is very disturbing," Dr Wright comments, broadly calling such variations "unjustified".

Remember, this is the regional model held up as the holistic top-notch example - by HBRC's Iain Maxwell, amongst others - for Hawke's Bay to follow.

But, for the Bay, it gets worse. The East Coast Basin's substrate is shale, more impervious than Taranaki's sandstone so almost guaranteed to require fracking. And with more risk of causing earthquakes and contamination of aquifers.

Dr Wright says it is "not adequate" to simply extrapolate the Taranaki approach across a country with such varying geography and hydrogeology, and several times warns the East Coast councils to proactively develop their own unique regime to suit, before oil wells proliferate.

She lambasts the government for a complete lack of guidance on how to address these issues.

Perhaps most chilling was her observation there is no adequate regulatory way to deal with the cumulative effects of an expanding oil industry - nor has anyone any plans on how to do that.

So it may not call for a ban on fracking, but the report should give every regulator in the country pause - and send them scurrying to up their game.

But with the Nats actively promoting oil and gas and test wells already being drilled, it's probably too late. That's the right of it.

Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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