The hysteria sweeping the country over fracking is like a modern-day version of the Chicken Licken story.
It is not the fear of the sky falling in but of what is happening underground that is seeing the formation of anti-fracking groups. Councils in Christchurch, Hawkes Bay, Dunedin, Hastings and Kaikoura, as well as many community boards, have jumped on the Greens' "Don't Frack with NZ" bandwagon. It is time to inject some science and common sense into the debate.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, has been used in New Zealand for decades. Some 25 years ago, fracking was used in the construction of the Clyde Dam while I was undertaking my doctoral thesis in geotechnical engineering. Fracking is used to develop geothermal energy fields and to enhance oil and gas recovery in the petroleum industry. It is similar to "well stimulation" in the water industry.
The technique is used where the geology has low permeability. This means the rock, sand, silt or clay is so tight that it is difficult for fluids to flow. Fracking involves water being pumped at high pressure down a well to open up gaps so it is easier to extract the water, steam, gas or oil.
The efficiency of fracking is improved by adding small amounts of proppants and lubricants to the water. The proppants are little beads that get into the gaps during the high-pressure fracking and keep the gaps open when the pressure is released. The lubricants help get the proppants where they need to be.
The alternative to fracking in these tight geological formations is to drill a lot more wells. This uses a lot more energy, creates potentially greater environmental problems and can make the development of some geothermal and petroleum resources uneconomic.
The first environmental risk cited by those seeking a ban is that fracking can trigger small earthquakes. This is true for all sorts of engineering works. A magnitude 4 earthquake was triggered by the filling of Lake Pukaki in the 1960s. Lots of small earthquakes are triggered by constructing pile foundations for buildings, bridges and wharves. Hundreds of small quakes are occurring with the current geothermal energy developments north of Taupo. The few small earthquakes that could be caused by fracking need to be considered in the context of there being 18,000 naturally occurring earthquakes over magnitude 2.5 across the country a year. New Zealanders have more to fear from the vibration of their mobile phone than that caused by fracking.
The second concern is pollution of New Zealand's waterways and aquifers. These risks are also low. The proppants used are just fillers. They pose fewer health risks than sand in the family sand pit. The lubricants have a toxicity similar to dish washing liquid. The far greater risk to water quality is the natural contaminants from underground that may be picked up by the water during drilling or fracking of a well. This is particularly true of geothermal wells in volcanic strata that often contain toxic chemicals.
The argument here is not that fracking is risk-free but rather that the risks are manageable. This is the conclusion of the Taranaki Regional Council which has overseen 20 years of petroleum industry fracking without incident. The United States Environmental Protection Authority has come to a similar conclusion. A detailed inquiry just published by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering in the United Kingdom also concludes the technology can be used safely. We do need to ensure wells are properly sealed, that drilling and fracking wastewater is responsibly managed and that ground vibrations are monitored and minimised.
The real risk for New Zealand in the fracking debate is a knee-jerk political reaction that halts the development of industries offering significant economic and environmental benefits.
There are huge geothermal energy resources in the upper North Island that can be developed only with fracking. It is contradictory for the Greens to campaign on a platform of creating 100,000 jobs from renewable energy, identify geothermal as a key opportunity and then propose a fracking ban that would kill this industry.
Fracking technologies are underpinning an energy revolution in the United States. Huge unconventional shale gas resources in Louisiana and Pennsylvania are coming on stream, enabling gas to replace coal-fired electricity generation. Gas emits one-third the greenhouse gas emissions of coal. This low-cost gas is also reducing American dependence on the Middle East.
This gas revolution is relevant to New Zealand. Our economy has hugely benefited from Maui gas over the past three decades, but this field is coming to an end. If we do not find new natural gas resources in the next decade, energy prices will rise and we will inevitably burn more coal. New Zealand must be open to responsibly using fracking to access our unconventional gas resources.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, in response to demands from the Greens, is undertaking an inquiry and will report by Christmas. I fear this will unfold in a similar way to when the Greens demanded a Royal Commission on Genetic Modification, but then rubbished its conclusions.
I am passionate about New Zealand's natural environment. I want to bequeath my children and grandchildren a nation with a great lifestyle, a strong economy and a clean environment. That will only be possible if we take a rational and science-based approach to our natural resources and risk management. Fracking may have too many letters in common with our favourite swear word, but it is the least of New Zealand's environmental worries.
Nick Smith is the MP for Nelson and a former Conservation and Environment Minister. He has a PhD in geotechnical engineering from the University of Canterbury.