Armchair experts should base arguments on real evidence, writes Bernie Napp, a senior policy analyst at Straterra.
Arguments that conflate emotion and reason have been ever the stuff of politics and public debate. This is human but does not make it right.
The debate on fracking (hydraulic fracturing) technology is a case in point. Concern is being expressed in Taranaki, the East Coast, Canterbury, and elsewhere, over the possibility of fracking being used to extract natural gas, raising fears of earthquakes, water and air pollution, and risks to human health.
I would like to separate the facts from the conjecture in the interests of informed debate, and good decision-making in this country.
Fracking is the pumping of mainly water and sand through a well into deeply-buried gas-bearing rock, to open up fissures in the rock, and increase the flow of gas. Two per cent of the fluid is chemical additives to make the process work.
In New Zealand, in the concentrations used, fracking fluid is non-toxic to humans, just as swimming pools contain toxic chemicals yet people safely swim in them. In the same vein, sleeping pills can definitely kill a human being but are fine if used safely.
In New Zealand, industry believes there are the technology, the laws and regulations, and the geological conditions to carry out fracking safely. If it wasn't safe or lawful, we would not do it. We have our reputations to consider for a start. We also have families and wish to live in a sustainable and prosperous New Zealand.
There have been less than 20 fracking operations in New Zealand in the last 40 years of petroleum development, with no incidents of any kind. All of these operations were deep below the water table. The possibility of fracking fluids getting into the drinking water is extremely remote.
Nonetheless, the New Zealand industry is facing outrageous accusations from people who, seemingly, read a couple of reports and then consider they are well informed.
Columnist Tracey Barnett alleges that fracking fluids are "potentially carcinogenic" with no evidence presented, and that these fluids are "laced with chemicals". Well, so are coffee, tea, beer and wine, for goodness sake.
Just to make it absolutely clear, the toxic BTEX chemicals, which include benzene and toluene, are not used in fracking in New Zealand.
The next concern is that fracking causes earthquakes. This comes from a report prepared for the European Parliament of June 2011. The reference for the Blackpool earthquake is a newspaper article, and that for earthquakes in the Fort Worth area are unpublished, making these difficult to assess at this distance.
The reference for the Arkansas earthquakes is the local geological survey which has been recording earthquakes in that area for more than 100 years, including swarms of earthquakes that occurred before fracking in the area started. The present swarm may or may not be connected with fracking. Granted, more work on this may be needed.
Your columnist says of Arkansas that "drillers had put so much residual water, sand and chemicals back down old wells it would have created the equivalent of a 12ha underground lake". That implies a huge hole filled with fluid has been created underground.
Think, rather, of rock underground being like a sponge. Filled with fluid or not, rock is rock.
The $60 million project in Switzerland referred to by your columnist had to do with geothermal energy, not fracking.
Then there is a Russian paper, which says with no evidence that in 1963 the filling of a hydro dam in India caused a magnitude 7 earthquake nearby. The paper does say hydros and oil and gas wells can change the state of stress of rocks underground and that small earthquakes can result in response, and that may be relevant for Arkansas.
But any seismic activity as a result of fracking or hydros would be a different phenomenon than earthquakes caused by the massive forces of nature such as have occurred recently in Christchurch. To conflate the two would be highly misleading.
Now to the specular issue of residents in the United States setting fire to their tapwater.
Official investigations in Colorado and Pennsylvania have shown that affected water bores had been drilled through shallow coal seams and that the lining of the bores have corroded. As a result thermogenic methane migrated from the coal into the drinking water.
This has nothing to do with fracking.
Having looked at the US material, it appears there are legitimate concerns about air quality in places, in that country, and that has been admitted by authorities. New Zealanders need have no concerns because the practices and chemicals used in the US, as portrayed, are not legal in New Zealand.
It may be too much to hope that we can convince the "armchair experts" in this debate to distinguish between fact and innuendo. But we do ask the general public and our political leaders to consider carefully all of the information before leaping to any conclusions.