Tracey Barnett

Tracey Barnett is a Herald columnist

Tracey Barnett: Oil industry's fracking spin exploits ignorance of citizens

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Honestly, you're confused. Maybe you read my column a few weeks ago about "fracking" - the gas-extraction process that blasts water, sand and chemicals deep below the surface to release gas from fractured rock. Then you read the gas industry response.

So there you sit, like any bright-eyed citizen, trying to figure out who is telling the truth. Maybe the overseas reports of people igniting their tap water aren't really because of fracking, and the hundreds of small- to medium-sized earthquakes recorded over fracking zones are coincidence.

So you ask one philosophical question: If the process of gas fracking is as safe as our industry claims, what do the French know that has caused them to ban it entirely?

Why do South Africa, Quebec in Canada, parts of Australia, and about 76 American local governments have a moratorium on the practice? Why is New York City's environmental commissioner calling fracking "an unacceptable threat to the water supply of nine million New Yorkers and cannot be safely permitted in the watershed"?

You're no expert, but you're no fool. Somewhere between oil-company spin and our Government's thirst for cash is our ignorance. Unless we educate ourselves quickly, we're going for a ride whether we like it or not. While we are just beginning to hear about fracking here, Americans are seeing more than 1000 cases of contamination documented by government and courts in Colorado, New Mexico, Alabama, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

While other countries are studying links to earthquakes, our Government is issuing permits to frack in shaken Canterbury.

So what do these countries know that we haven't learned? Apparently, lots. I sent out a survey to 11 New Zealand regional councils asking for their policy on fracking.

Hawkes Bay's response was not untypical: "At present we have not formed a view on the concerns we are aware of in the community nationally as we have not considered it before.

"The question has been raised with the council about one month ago by a member of the public. As a consequence we are doing some high-level research as to what the potential issues may be."

Kudos to that lone public voice that spurred investigation. For most regional councils fracking is brand new, not yet in their backyard. Individual councils set their own rules. Most are just learning what they'll be. That's the problem: who is teaching them? The gas industry?

If our gas industry's "best practice" really trumps those from France to Australia, show us. We have a choice. New Zealand can learn from other countries' mistakes - or, as it stands today, we can choose to repeat them.

I challenge every driller in this country, and each regional council, to enact this:

* Require fracking to have a consent at the outset from each regional council. It sounds like a no-brainer, but many regional councils require consent only for the resulting wastewater and mud. Some monitor what comes out, not what goes in a well. Taranaki, where almost all of the fracking has occurred, instituted a new consent requirement only last month under legal advice, after considerable community pressure.

* Make all fracking consents open to public notification. Let us know if fracking is happening in our communities. Transparency matters. Currently, 98 per cent of consents have been non-notified to the public. Regional councils should agree to flip that number around. Let us have a say.

* Publicly disclose what chemicals drillers are using. All the chemicals - not a partial list or what is usually used in Australia. What's being injected into wells here is what counts. The industry is quick to tell us New Zealand doesn't inject a cocktail of chemicals known as BTEX into fracking fluids, but what it doesn't say is that BTEX can be drawn up naturally from the ground in the fracking process. Radioactivity, too. Monitor for it.

Global companies fight to keep details of their fracking fluids hidden, claiming they're commercially sensitive, like Coke's secret recipe. If the gas industry is so confident these chemicals are benign, reveal publicly what they are with each permit.

* Have each company voluntarily publish details of fracking fluids on New Zealand's petroleum industry website, Pepanz. This would alleviate fear of the unknown. Unfortunately, even if a company reveals it is using something as safe as table salt, you still have a big problem if it sullies a communities' fresh-water aquifer 600m underground.

* Stop the industry practice of making complainants sign non-disclosure statements after their land has been polluted. Silence has proved to be golden for the gas and oil industry. When a rural family is left sick from contaminants, their property unsellable, often the only choice left is to agree to a company payout that silences them from testifying publicly. Stop muzzling your mistakes.

In almost every case overseas, fracking problems have been exacerbated by the industry and even governments' push against transparency.

It's simple. Open your hand and earn our trust.

www.traceybarnett.co.nz or Twitter @TraceyBarnett

- NZ Herald

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