Sam Judd
Comment on the environment from columnist Sam Judd

Sam Judd: What the frack? A brief overview of hydraulic fracturing

Photo / Charlie Riedel
Photo / Charlie Riedel

In the midst of the public uproar about 'fracking' there has been a heated and sometimes ill-informed debate on the issue.

Hydraulic fracturing (or 'fracking') involves injecting water, proppants (usually sand) and a cocktail of chemicals deep into the earth so that oil and gas is released from the rock and can be extracted. This process - which is a very successful way to remove fossil fuels - has greatly changed the energy sector, as previously spent wells can be 'fracked' and continue to produce the goods.

There is a great sense in communities that energy companies are 'self-regulating' and making their own rules, which could be putting the environment - which has not been a major consideration in these operations in the past - at risk.

The United States Army and Geological Survey department have confirmed that fracking causes seismic events.

Although it is rare for fracking-induced 'quakes' to be felt at the ground and cause damage, one in Colorado measured over 5 on the richter scale, and try telling someone in Christchurch that it is worth the risk.

Fracking has been happening in New Zealand since 1989, in Taranaki and the Waikato, and has never caused an earthquake that has put people at risk, but the issue becomes far more worrying as we know that on the East Coast in the Raumakura Basin, international energy companies are scoping the area out for exploration which, these days, would include them wanting to ream the earth for all they can by fracking.

Does anyone out there remember the Napier earthquake? This remains our deadliest natural disaster - which killed 256 people - and is not far from areas that are being considered for fracking.

This is a very different area geologically to Taranaki and the Waikato, so it would seem that we need to know what we are doing before we get in there and blast underground rock that could be near faultlines.

The other issue is water contamination.

Again, energy companies will tell you that the risk is minimal of this happening, yet fracking done in the United States that didn't follow the right process has been proven to ruin peoples' drinking water in a town called Pavillion in Wyoming where the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found contamination in 11 water wells, and concluded: "the data indicates likely impact to ground water that can be explained by hydraulic fracturing."

The likelihood of water contamination depends largely on the quality of construction of the drilling wells, especially on the casings that are used to stop the chemicals from entering the water table. But there is no standard number of casings required in New Zealand and although it was an accident, after the McKee well 'blowout' (where gas pockets explode during drilling - something which fracking increases the chances of happening) in Taranaki in 1995, it took 18 months for the nearby Mangahewa Stream to recover.

There is more evidence of companies making their own rules and inadequate regulation when we find that 17 'fracks' used a diesel based solution in Taranaki between 2001-2005.

Diesel contains benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes (BTEX) - contaminants that are known to affect soil and groundwater near oil and gas production sites and petrol stations.

Despite all of this evidence of the risks, if fracking is done in a responsible way, the risks to the environment seem minimal. But this of course relies on people following best practice, which is yet to be developed into strong rules here in New Zealand.

Many activists out there do not trust the oil and gas barons to follow such guidelines. In her report on fracking the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright mentioned that 'The petroleum permit application process does not require an assessment of environmental risks,' and that after drilling wells are no longer used, ongoing monitoring is not usually required.

Going further into the idea of self-interested, self-regulation (which many would argue only takes the interests of the energy companies into account), we find that 'other than failures of the primary pressure containment system of the well, dangerous incidents need not be reported to the High Hazards Unit: "Consequently, we are not learning from these events and we are not getting any indication of how well major accident hazards are being controlled by operators."

This screams of companies making their own rules and conjures ideas of oil barons in cowboy hats pillaging our environment in order to get rich. This image fuels the fire as debate continues on whether it is a good idea to continue and/or extend the practice of fracking in our supposedly 100% pure country.

Surely we want to develop tight rules about where and how you can frack so that we can be confident it won't harm the environment or our safety. Until then I think multinational energy companies that want to explore our lands for oil and gas can frack off back home.

What do you think?

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