Bruce Bisset: Fracking report's core alarming

By Bruce Bisset


Seems to me the rush to declare fracking an acceptable tool for the oil industry to use here is unseemly at best, given the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment's report raises far more questions than it answers.

Indeed, rather than Jan Wright's report showing opposition to hydraulic fracturing is, in John Key's words, "fundamentally wrong", there is considerable doubt as to whether current industry practices can in any way be considered "right".

While everyone from Federated Farmers to the NZ Herald have been quick to breathe an "all's well" sigh of relief that the commissioner hasn't called for a ban on the practice, there's a very important codicil to that: yet.

See, it's an interim report. It does little more than state background and bring the facts into question. It does not answer the questions to any substantive degree.

How well the environmental risks associated with fracking are actually managed will be scrutinised in the next part of the report, which will also contain the commissioner's recommendations.

It's not due until the middle of next year.

And while Ms Wright has so far found little to justify a moratorium, she also admits that position could well change once the detail is properly digested.

Regardless, there are enough contentions raised in this initial offering to alarm rather than allay concerns. Anyone dreaming otherwise has read the text with one eye closed.

So before getting lulled into a false sense of fossil fuel security, here are some bits either being glossed over or sidelined that you might want to consider.

More than 50 fracking operations for oil and gas have occurred in New Zealand since the first known frack in 1989, all but two of those in Taranaki. But until recently Taranaki District Council neither required consents for these nor carried out any monitoring or environmental effects assessments of them.

That was done (if it was) by the companies concerned; they were, in practice, allowed to design their own programmes in their own way and carry them out purely to their own satisfaction. In short, the industry has set its own rules.

As a result, many problems from conventional drilling - such as spillages into streams, seepage from waste pits or well-heads, even radioactive waste issues - did not cross into the public domain.

So it's a moot point whether the industry has had any problems with fracking. They simply haven't been reported.

Or, as the commissioner more delicately puts it, "companies are perhaps being trusted rather too much to all do 'the right thing"', while noting "only the most recent consents require that groundwater around the well is monitored for contaminants".

She calls the current regulatory regime "complex and fragmented" with no "fit for purpose" oversight and a lack of transparency.

The report repeatedly stresses there are significant risks with fracking, calling the potential for aquifers to be contaminated "very real", while the potential for more-than-minor earthquakes to be triggered if an already-stressed fault were affected by a frack is described as a "major concern".

On this issue, the commissioner is at pains to point out the differences, in the nature of the rock substrate and in seismic activity, between Taranaki and the East Coast, noting that Taranaki's experience cannot simply be presupposed here (or anywhere else).

And while assessing risks as low "at the current scale", the commissioner warns that if commercial deposits were found in Hawke's Bay or Gisborne we could be surprised by "the scale and speed of change"; crucially she notes that "the nature and degree of the environmental risks that could accompany the potential expansion of fracking are not assessed" in the report.

She also proposes a number of pertinent questions needing answers before fracking takes place here.

Overall, "the risk of fracking leading to significant environmental damage is critically dependent on each stage of the process being done with great care", the commissioner says, but then most tellingly concludes that "at this stage I cannot be confident that operational best practices are actually being implemented and enforced in this country".

Given the tenor of these comments, it's disappointing she didn't call for a moratorium until the substantive report with her recommendations comes out.

But as you'll appreciate, this interim version is hardly the good oil for fracking it's being painted.

That's the right of it.

Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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