Bruce Bisset: Words can't paper over the fracks


Seems to me it's difficult to know whether to frown or smile when a politician says something you agree with because they're either buttering you up to let them be excused for not doing it or looking to slide something nasty in under the radar while you're busy praising their initiative.

Take Hastings District Council's laudable precautionary approach to hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and to genetically modified organisms: it's possible some tight rules around both may get written into the district plan, with perhaps even a ban on GE crops.

This stance has been mirrored in part by the regional council, though it appears less inclined to be proactive with GE than it should be and like HDC will wait on the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment's report on fracking before deciding whether any new rules need be considered.

On the face of it, the councils willingness - in response to considerable community pressure - to be open-minded towards limiting or banning these practices in Hawke's Bay is to be applauded. (Note that Napier City has a long-standing, if symbolic, GE-free policy.)

But without any distinct proposal being mooted to cement something in place, at this point it's just a bunch of calming if well-intentioned words.

And a cynic might suspect that in the case of fracking, the councils had already been quietly advised the Apache/TAG Oil venture had decided to defer exploration plans for the Bay, making theoretical adoption of the precautionary principle an "easy do".

Apache/TAG are still plunging ahead to the south, in Tararua, where Mayor Roly Ellis has greeted them with open arms and (perhaps in consequence) opposition appears minimal; and to the north, in Gisborne, where doubtless because of the more titillating oil seeps the companies are pushing ahead with drilling operations despite considerable protest.

Which puts HB Chamber of Commerce CEO Murray Douglas' unseemly bitching about "well poisoners" (meaning, environmentalists) costing the Bay a "much-needed bonanza" into context: the oil companies only rate this area third choice on the coast, so are happy to drop it - for now.

Personally, I was disappointed to see Douglas' comments, because when he first arrived he appeared to have a good grasp of environmental considerations and the need for business to encompass them.

And while I appreciate his drive to encourage diversity of industry in the Bay, that the vast majority of current production is farming or farm-related and it is the basis of that industry - our soils, water and ecology - that would be threatened by either GE or fracking rather undermines his new-found conservatism.

At the same time, beating up the Ruataniwha water storage project as if it were a godsend despite that no clear analysis (environmental or economic, good or bad) has been made public and when, again, it is farming that will either most benefit or most suffer rather begs the question as to who is being served with such intemperate views.

It may be that spending $500 million-$600 million - yes, you read that right, according to an excellent "whole picture" analysis by local watchdog Tom Belford - on a water storage and irrigation project for about 200 farms is a good thing. But ideologic posturing will not make it so.

Similarly while new Federated Farmers president Bruce Wills is a breath of environmentally-concerned fresh air, he too has fallen into the trap of praising this scheme before the finer detail is known; if it proves cost-prohibitive - as appears likely, with estimates of $10,000 per hectare just to the farm gate - I suspect he may discover reservations about the best way forward.

As he should; as we all should. As HDC and HBRC should, on our behalf. And as should every other council and industry group likely to be affected by such schemes.

Just as there was no clear cost-benefit case advanced for oil exploration - one that balanced real environmental and social risk against potential economic gain - so there has been no such case made for the Ruataniwha scheme, and if HBRC acknowledge this for the one, they must do likewise for the other.

Blue-sky greenwash rhetoric is nowhere near sufficient.

Put up or shut up.

And let's see some real teeth moved into the Bay's planning documents while we're at it.

That's the right of it.

Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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