Gareth Hughes

We need a moratorium on fracking in New Zealand

by Gareth Hughes

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)

Published in Environment & Resource Management by Gareth Hughes on Mon, December 10th, 2012   

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