Tracey Barnett

Tracey Barnett is a Herald columnist

Tracey Barnett: What the frack is Govt thinking?

119 comments

Beware. The minute this column runs there will probably be a response ghostwritten by a public relations firm, possibly from overseas.

I'll also bet that most of the defending positions in the online comments will be from people who won't identify their ties to the gas and oil industry either here or abroad.

I ask this; identify yourself before you make your comments to keep this discussion clear. Let's start there, because that is what any one writer is up against here.

If you don't know what fracking is, you'd better learn now. I would call it a dirty word, one that this country is going to sadly regret if we don't stop this Government's intent to spread it from Taranaki to Southland.

Fracking is a decades-old process of extracting hard-to-reach underground gas. New Zealand has done it only on a small scale, mostly in Taranaki, more so in the past five to 10 years. Drillers inject millions of litres of water, sand and 2 to 4 per cent of a potentially carcinogenic cocktail of chemicals into the ground under high pressure.

Like the deliberate creation of tiny earth-quakes, the fluid blasts cracks in the earth deep underground, releasing trapped gas.

So what's the problem? Most famously, in the United States fracking has been linked to homeowners showing horrified reporters how they can take a match to the water coming out of their kitchen tap and ignite it. Dotted all over America, rural residents are claiming their water supply has been contaminated as a result of underground fracking.

Sadly, the US oil and gas industry has a history of paying for the silence of the people they contaminate. Gas suppliers have paid complainants not to speak to the media after they suffered serious tumours and health problems from even showering in their poisoned water on their now worthless land. Sick, financially crippled complainants aren't left with much choice but to take the cheque.

The problem is, what goes down the drilled well must come up. Despite assurances of safety, millions of litres of chemically laced wastewater from fracking have too often leaked into the shallower fresh ground water supply.

Just ask residents in Pennsylvania, Texas, Wyoming; the list goes on. In each case, the industry forces residents to prove it was fracking that has poisoned local water, a hard technical ask for often poorer small town or rural residents who sign on for drilling for the added income of a few thousand dollars.

Unfortunately, there's more and here's where New Zealanders should listen hard. What should concern us on these shaky shores is another contested effect of fracking; residents have experienced thousands of new, small to medium earthquakes in areas that have undergone heavy fracking.

After having 3000 wells drilled around Guy, Arkansas, the area experienced 1100 earthquakes since last September. Drillers had put so much residual water, sand and chemicals back down into old wells, it would have created the equivalent of a 12ha underground lake. When two wells of spent fluid were shut down after local outcry, the earthquakes lessened dramatically.

A fluke, right? Ask folks around Blackpool, England, where officials shut a fracking project after small earthquakes. Or in Basel, Switzerland, where their $60 million project was suspended after earthquakes. Ask Quebec, Canada, and New South Wales, Australia, which have slapped moratoriums on fracking. France has banned it entirely.

So what is our Government doing? Running in the other direction, embracing fracking with enthusiasm. The new drilling permit map looks like measles dotted from Gisborne to Canterbury. Yes, that's right, Canterbury - like some twisted, clueless joke.

But we'll be different. We'll do it better, safer. We drill much deeper below the water table than the US fields, argues the industry here. It's true we drill hundreds of metres deeper than US sites. But if Taranaki is any indication, I'm not sure we have our act together any better.

Most of our fracking waste is re-injected down old wells. But the Taranaki Regional Council has just approved residual fracking sludge to be "land-farmed", a nice word for spreading the waste on a paddock to wait for its toxicity to leech into the air and soil for up to a year, before we cover it over with a thin topsoil layer and put cows back on it.

They've been doing this for years with chemically laced drilling mud while the council duly notes the breaches in acceptable levels in annual published reports.

All of this process is "non-notified" in Taranaki, meaning the public doesn't have a say before any fracking begins. Indeed, the council only began to institute a consent process, still non-notified, for fracking this week after reacting to small but vocal local pressure. If this is the look of our much-touted energy future, we deserve what we get.

ON THE WEB

www.traceybarnett.co.nz

Twitter @TraceyBarnett

- NZ Herald

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