Gareth Hughes
We need a moratorium on fracking in New Zealand

Fracking report is a red flag not a green light to new fracking wells.

We need a moratorium on fracking in New Zealand. With so many unanswered questions remaining after the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s (PCE) recent interim report it would be irresponsible to allow the looming large expansion of fracking for oil and gas into new regions to go ahead.

Fracking is a controversial topic that has seen France, Bulgaria, South Africa place bans or moratoriums on fracking activities, while Germany, the Czech Republic, Romania, Ireland and Luxemburg have signalled they will not allow the process to be carried out pending further study. States and regions in Australia, Canada, the United States, Switzerland and Italy have banned fracking and a long list of communities, cities and local boards around the world have declared their region ‘Frack Free’ including Christchurch City Council and Kaikoura District Council in New Zealand.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking is an issue that has gone from almost zero public awareness of a year ago to now widespread public knowledge and concern. This concern led the PCE Dr Jan Wright, to launch an investigation of which her office has just released its interim report.

Her interim report “The Environmental Impacts of Fracking in New Zealand” has been tabled in Parliament and lays out a number of risks and concerns from the practise of extracting oil and gas. From water contamination, waste disposal, air pollution, human-induced earthquakes and the contribution to climate change there are a number of worries.

Dr Wright says fracking can be effectively managed if best practise is enforced through regulation. However, evidence in the report shows this clearly isn’t the case in New Zealand. The report concludes that fracking companies do not have a ‘social license’ to operate and that the regulation is fragmented and light-handed. The report says, ‘In New Zealand, to a considerable extent, companies appear to be not only regulating themselves, but monitoring their own performance.’ This is deeply concerning and should be a red flag not a green light to new fracking wells. New Zealand should learn the lessons from recent tragedies and costly mistakes like leaky buildings that a ‘hands-off’ approach won’t protect us from real risks.

Like the similar UK Royal Society’s fracking report there are likely to be a number of recommendations for stronger rules and practises flowing out of the PCE’s final report next year. These must be enacted by the Government before we should even consider allowing new wells to spread to new regions like East Coast, Hawke’s Bay and Wairarapa and then, only with communities’ support.

Kiwis are right to be concerned about fracking’s environmental impact. What we’ve seen of fracking with less than 100 well sites in New Zealand, mostly in Taranaki, doesn’t provide much confidence in the status quo.  We’ve seen fracking jobs being done without specific consent, returned fracking fluids dumped in a local stream in Southland, groundwater and soil contamination from storing fluids in unlined earthen pits, shallow fracking and fracking close to aquifers that increases the risk of water contamination, flaring of gas and fracking fluids from ground-level pits (a practice the head of Canadian fracking company Apache Corp. reportedly called abhorrent) and lack of scrutiny and transparency of fracking chemicals.

There has been some improvement in fracking practises in the last year which the Green Party welcomes, such as requiring resource consents, phasing out unlined earthen pits to store fracking fluids and moving away from flaring pits. But this has only occurred because of public scrutiny. We shouldn’t leave it up to citizen researchers and campaigners to improve drilling practises in their spare time; we have an opportunity now to take a safety-first approach and halt new wells until it can be guaranteed safe and best practise is enforced through regulation. The oil and gas underground isn’t going anywhere, there is no rush. What is needed is get this right and protect our environment.

However, we don’t need to resort to fracking to create New Zealand jobs and wealth. Renewable energy will always likely be cleaner and safer than fracking and is a better future direction for New Zealand. The Pure Advantage business report released just two weeks ago identified that we have a global niche and economic opportunity in the development of sustainable energy. Let’s not risk fracking up New Zealand’s environment by rushing ahead, let’s make sure it will be safe first.

(Variations of this of article have appeared as opinion pieces in the Gisborne Herald and Wairarapa Times-Age)

26 thoughts on “We need a moratorium on fracking in New Zealand

  1. Despite your claims of the huge damage fracking was causing in NZ, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment found, in her words, that no great alarm bells were ringing.

    It’s a good lesson for you Gareth. When you get caught out massively exagerating a problem, you’ve just spent a major part of your public credibility.

    And the next time you say something on fracking or anything else, it’s going to be coming from someone who is known to vastly overstate the real risks.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 2 (+10)

  2. Ugh…. There are two points here.

    The first is that Gareth wants regulation of the industry. He didn’t claim there is “huge damage”.

    The second is that the report said that regulation is required. It is.

    Since there is not a regulatory environment worth discussing here in NZ there is a clear implication that we should not to allow any further fracking until one exists.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 9 (-8)

  3. “Implication?” The title is rather specific.

    There could be better regulation, but the same could be said about any activity. That is no reason to call for a moratorium.

    As for “let’s make sure it will be safe first”, we all know nothing can be made safe, so this is a ridiculous standard. As photonz says, Gareth, you’ve spent a lot of your credibility on this issue, and such demands will only erode it further.

    Let’s stick with science, shall we?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 2 (+5)

  4. Arana – I disagree.

    There is a requirement for regulation. A duty of governance.

    There is no regulation, therefore there should be no fracking.

    It IS simple… a proper regulatory fence is required to be put around the profit motive. If there is no fence, then a more restrictive preventative measure is required.

    There is no fence. There should be no new wells.

    Why do you continue to argue that we should trust the people who in other places have given us this?

    http://www.thenation.com/article/171504/fracking-our-food-supply?rel=emailNation

    It CAN be done safely. Most of us understand that. However, if it is safely done in NZ we can safely say that THAT is basically accidental and incidental and dependent on the sense of personal responsibility that some individuals take… things that the profit motive swiftly erodes if there is no oversight.

    There is no coherent and organized oversight.

    There should be no new wells until there is.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 9 (-8)

  5. BJ – I disagree.

    There is no clear and present danger identified in the report that means tighter regulation must come first. Rather, it is something for consideration.

    “She concludes that she has not seen anything that is a high and urgent concern that would warrant calling for a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in New Zealand”

    I disagree with your, and Gareth’s, black and white assessment when it comes to risk, but can’t say I’m surprised. It seems the Greens had made up their mind well before now.

    The political stance is, and always will be, negative on fossil fuel use. It’s not science.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 3 (+7)

  6. “we all know nothing can be made safe”

    What a ridiculous comment. Is it not safe to fly? Flying has been made safe through regulation controlling the manufacture of aircraft, the materials used, the flight patterns at airports, pilot training etc. Are you seriously suggesting that it’s not safe to fly?
    Better call the authorities, quick smart!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 10 (-8)

  7. No, it isn’t safe to fly. Or be born. Or go for a walk.

    There is a degree of risk in everything we do. Flying is low risk, as is fraking. The report confirms this is the case i.e. the risk is low enough that we do not require a moratorium. We’ve moved on from that question and we’re now considering what regulation may be appropriate going forward.

    Calling for “safety” is polli-speak and rather “undergraduate”. The question is one of risk vs reward.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 4 (+9)

  8. While on principle I agree that ‘sticking with the science’ is a great maxim and that scientific method is often a marvelous tool to guide rational decision making, all human decisions are context dependent.

    Empirical assessment in not incorruptible. ‘Sticking with the science’ has become code – like ‘the statistics tell us’ – for “We know better than you do, and as you have no power or expertise to challenge our position, your concerns can be safety ignored”.

    When big money is at stake, science is frequently the handmaiden of exploitation; and there is no bigger money than the energy business.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0 (+3)

  9. “No, it isn’t safe to fly. Or be born. Or go for a walk.”

    You are a loon.

    (Someone has to say it).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 12 (-9)

  10. I’ve explained why I think it’s a question of risk management. In contrast, “safe” is a nebulous and ill-defined concept. No activity is without risk.

    It’s unfortunate you can’t follow a reasoned argument and lower yourself to making personal attacks.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 2 (+5)

  11. In contrast, “safe” is a nebulous and ill-defined concept.

    That’s a pretty idiotic statement, given that ‘safe’ tends to be pretty well described by regulation (i.e. Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996), governance practices (principally under the DoL) and the courts.

    Whether safe practices are adhered to – essentially a cost /benefit analysis – is another matter entirely.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 7 (-2)

  12. It’s not my way; it’s the law.

    Your line of questioning is a red herring and somewhat pointless given that from a legalistic perspective as I am neither a legislator, enforcer or judicial interpreter, but assuming you are asking in good faith, here is how I think ‘safe’ can be determined.

    Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996

    s2 Interpretation
    serious harm has the same meaning as in Schedule 1 of the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992, to whit;


    1. Any of the following conditions that amounts to or results in permanent loss of bodily function, or temporary severe loss of bodily function: respiratory disease, noise-induced hearing loss, neurological disease, cancer, dermatalogical disease, communicable disease, musculoskeletal disease, illness caused by exposure to infected material, decompression sickness, poisoning, vision impairment, chemical or hot-metal burn of eye, penetrating wound of eye, bone fracture, laceration, crushing.

    2. Amputation of body part.

    3. Burns requiring referral to a specialist medical practitioner or specialist outpatient clinic.

    Schedule 1 clause 3: amended, on 18 September 2004, by section 175(1) of the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003 (2003 No 48).

    4. Loss of consciousness from lack of oxygen.

    5. Loss of consciousness, or acute illness requiring treatment by a medical practitioner, from absorption, inhalation, or ingestion, of any substance.

    Schedule 1 clause 5: amended, on 18 September 2004, by section 175(1) of the Health Practitioners Competence Assurance Act 2003 (2003 No 48).

    6. Any harm that causes the person harmed to be hospitalised for a period of 48 hours or more commencing within 7 days of the harm’s occurrence.

    serious environmental damage means any environmental damage prescribed under section 140, to whit;

    Subject to section 141, the Governor-General may from time to time, by Order in Council, make regulations for all or any of the following purposes:
    (e) prescribing controls for any hazardous substance to avoid or mitigate any adverse effects on the physical or chemical nature of the environment:
    (f) prescribing controls to avoid or mitigate illness or injury to people or damage to the environment or chattels from any hazardous substance:
    (q) prescribing damage as serious environmental damage for the purposes of section 144:

    S7 Precautionary approach
    All persons exercising functions, powers, and duties under this Act, including but not limited to, functions, powers, and duties under sections 28A, 29, 32, 38, 45, and 48, shall take into account the need for caution in managing adverse effects where there is scientific and technical uncertainty about those effects.

    Pretty self explanatory – prevention first: use caution where there is uncertainty.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2 (+1)

  13. That cut and paste merely backs my point about risk management. The example you provide is all about managing and mitigating risk.

    Hughes uses the phrase ” let’s make sure it will be safe first”. Perhaps he can define what “safe” means.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3 (+1)

  14. I would think ‘safe’ is pretty obvious, Arana.

    If fracking contravenes the interpretations stated in s2 of the Act, then it’s not safe.

    If there is “scientific and technical uncertainty about those effects”, then a precautionary approach is required, indicating a specific regulatory regime in line with s141.

    Note that this reconciles with Hughes’ statement; “Let’s not risk fracking up New Zealand’s environment by rushing ahead, let’s make sure it will be safe first.”

    By safe, I take him to mean not some abstract, personal concept of ‘safety’ which appears to what you are aiming at but rather, a specific regulatory framework which sets both standards, enforcement measures and penalties for infringement.

    Further, this seems to be in line Hughes’ analysis of Dr. Wrights findings:

    “Dr Wright says fracking can be effectively managed if best practise is enforced through regulation. However, evidence in the report shows this clearly isn’t the case in New Zealand. The report concludes that fracking companies do not have a ‘social license’ to operate and that the regulation is fragmented and light-handed. The report says, ‘In New Zealand, to a considerable extent, companies appear to be not only regulating themselves, but monitoring their own performance.’”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2 (+3)

  15. Struggling to understand the meaning of ‘safe’, Arana?

    Start with something easier; ‘pin’, maybe, or ‘top’. Work your way up to those very tricky words, such as ‘safe’ and ‘troll’. Remember, you can always ask for help. I’m here for you.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 6 (-4)

  16. Will you be giving up your stereos? Having sex? Organic farming? Because they are “not safe” under s2.

    There’s a need for caution when indulging in these activities, certainly, but no need for a moratorium – as the fracking report Hughes insisted on clearly states.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 6 (-1)

  17. Stereos, sex and organic farming contravene the interpretations stated in s2 of the Act?

    Are you mad?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 4 (0)

  18. A stereo can cause noise-induced hearing loss
    Having sex can cause communicable disease
    Organic farming can lead to illness caused by exposure to infected material

    None of those activities are risk free. If you were to apply the precautionary principle in the same way Gareth does with fracking, you would place a moratorium on these activities, too.

    I think we can agree that’s just silly.

    Rather, we acknowledge there is some risk and look to mitigate risk, where possible. We don’t stop doing these things, because we do derive benefit from them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3 (+1)

  19. “Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996″

    Lets see… is sex a hazardous substance? No… and while it may lead to a new individual it does not lead to a new organism.

    Is your stereo a hazardous substance or a new organism? Probably not, though some people report symphonies playing while they are tripping.

    The organic farming doesn’t lead to new organisms, that’s solely the province of the GM sort of farming…

    So possibly one could bring organic farming under this act owing to the fact that manure is a “hazardous substance”…. but THAT restriction is not to organic farming but to all life forms as the “hazardous substance” commonly emanates from the southern end of any northbound animal. Apparently the law is more sane than the other observed source of that same “hazardous substance” we observe here.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2 (+2)

  20. The point is, BJ, attempts at writing “safety” into law cast a very wide net indeed, and would be rather laughable if one was using them to justify a moratorium.

    It would be easy for drilling lawyers to argue that if it applies to them, then it applies to may other activities, too.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3 (0)

  21. I would think ‘safe’ is pretty obvious

    I can think of few things harder to define to a legally certain standard.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0 (+4)

  22. Not really, dbuckley.

    As per extracts provided, the legislative standard is set within an Act of Parliament that specific specifically addresses Hazardous substances, their usage and considerations.

    The is a ton of other complementary HSE legislation out there with clearly defined enforcement and management roles across various agencies.

    In terms of legal certainty/interpretation, that is what the courts are for.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0 (+3)

  23. The point is, BJ, attempts at writing “safety” into law cast a very wide net indeed, and would be rather laughable if one was using them to justify a moratorium.

    We have a moratorium on murder under the Crimes Act and no one seems to have an issue with that as a ‘safety’ concern.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0 (+2)

  24. Politicians aren’t safe. History is peppered with examples where politicians have gone badly wrong, from Mao to Lenin to Kim Jong Il. Many politicians have resulted in death and environmental degradation.

    One cannot be too careful. I suggest we have a moratorium on all politicians to be sure they are safe for use.

    Careful now. Won’t someone think of the children.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2 (+1)

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