Fracking coming up short

By Jay Kuten

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CAPITAL OR ENVIRONMENT: Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron is having a hard time persuading his followers to support fracking. PICTURE/AP
CAPITAL OR ENVIRONMENT: Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron is having a hard time persuading his followers to support fracking. PICTURE/AP

When my son told me how great his family vacation in Dominican Republic was, I was particularly happy because I know how hard he and his wife work in the pressure cooker of New York City.

His description of a lush tropical paradise, modern, with good roads left me a touch envious until I remembered that Dominican Republic shares half its island with Haiti, the overpopulated poorest country in the Caribbean.

While DR has good roading, Haiti's infrastructure - even before the earthquake - was and is substantially lacking. What accounts for this vast difference?

Both countries were originally colonies of foreign states - France for Haiti and Spain for the Dominican - and both Haiti and the DR had slavery thrust upon them by their foreign masters.

But while the Spanish exploitation created a plantation system and a healthy agriculture, the French used the slaves to deforest their territory, shipping the lumber home. That deforestation created an ecologic disaster from which Haiti never recovered.

Despite similarities in history of subsequent corruption and dictatorship, DR has managed to use its resources to create a thriving tourism economy.

Extraction of resources of a country by foreign interests and its consequences brings to mind the proposed fracking of the northeast portion of the North Island. The process involves drilling deep wells and using a mix of toxic chemicals and massive amounts of water to fracture shale and liberate natural gas, said to be less environmentally damaging in its use by virtue of a lower carbon footprint.

Proponents claim the process is safe and that it will bring jobs as well as a cheap source of clean energy. Critics point out that the toxic chemicals used in the process may irrevocably damage aquifer and that run-off may kill rivers and streams with all the life that depends on them.

They cite the possible escape of a byproduct of the process, methane, a serious addition to atmospheric pollution.

And there is also the occasional incidental consequence of fracking - earthquakes.

Josh Fox, an American documentary filmmaker has created two films about the environmental impact of fracking and the well-financed public relations efforts of the oil and gas industry to create an atmosphere of doubt about scientific findings that fracking can cause water contamination and contribute to increased earthquake activity.

Fox's first film, Gaslands, has a remarkable scene in which a Colorado home-owner who lives near a well, Bob Markham, applies a match to his kitchen faucet and generates a small explosion of methane from his drinking water.

The Sky is Pink, Fox's second film, counters the industry's attempt to discredit the science behind well contamination. It is of interest that the public relations firm they hired, Hill & Knowlton, is the same firm which, 50 years ago, campaigned for the tobacco industry to assure consumers that smoking was safe.

In a similar vein, the assurances as to safety given in New Zealand point to Taranaki and an absence of contamination incidents there. Absent from those assurances is the deep sandy soil structure of Taranaki as opposed to a much more porous structure to soil in our northeast.

We might look to a few offshore voices of caution and concern. Andrew Liveris, chief executive of Dow Chemical, is not so much opposed to fracking as he is sceptical about the benefits of the process. He posits that fracking's cheap natural gas price is only ephemeral and that as gas gets exported, prices will rise and with it businesses will do less well.

He cites his own home country, Australia, as an example. That gas-rich country exported 90 per cent of its gas and hollowed out its manufacturing sector. Australians pay Japan-like prices at home while sending their gas away.

In the UK, David Cameron is having a hard time persuading his fellow countrymen to follow the US course yet again. His own natural constituents, conservative clergymen of Lancashire, sermonised that "fracking means choosing between economic gain and a healthy environment".

Those are our choices too.

- WANGANUI CHRONICLE

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