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Evaluating the environmental impacts of fracking in New Zealand: An interim report

November 2012 - Commissioner Overview

If someone had said eighteen months ago, that I would be releasing a report on fracking, I would have looked at them in puzzlement. How quickly things change.

It was from March last year that the word fracking started to appear in th e New Zealand media, and the international media were not much further ahead. Then in March this year I announced that I would investigate fracking, in response to requests from MPs from both sides of the House, from councils, and from members of the public.

The term ‘fracking’ is a contraction of ‘hydraulic fracturing’ – injecting fluid containing sand and chemicals at high pressure to fracture rock.

Injecting chemicals into the ground to crack the earth far below our feet seems to be a case of human hubris – that ancient Greek word denoting extreme arrogance and lack of humility – and for many, it just feels wrong. New Zealand is just one country where the concern about the technology has grown very rapidly.

The purpose of fracking is to extract previously inaccessible oil and gas from the earth’s crust. The reality is that the world is not ‘running out’ of oil and gas. Rather a number of new technologies are being used, or considered for use, around the world to supplement conventional drilling. In New Zealand fracking is one of these new technologies, deep sea oil drilling is another, and the conversion of coal into liquid fuels another.

In the course of this investigation, I visited Taranaki where fracking has been used for 23 years, and Gisborne and Hawkes Bay – two regions where exploration for oil and gas may lead to widespread use of fracking. On these visits it was evident that concerns about fracking are not limited to threats it poses to the environment.

Some concerns are economic, such as the revenue from royalties all flowing to central government and not shared with the regions.

Ownership of oil and gas by iwi has been an issue since the nationalisation of mineral resources prior to World War II. And the company executive who reportedly stated that the North Island east coast could become the Texas of the South clearly did not realise that a vision
of green pastoral landscapes dotted with wellheads was unlikely to gladden the hearts of many New Zealanders.

The high-level conclusion from the work done to date in this investigation echoes, and is broadly consistent with, the reviews of fracking that have been done elsewhere in the world. That conclusion is that the environmental risks associated with fracking can be managed effectively provided, to quote the United Kingdom Royal Society, “operational best practices are implemented and enforced through regulation”. But at this stage I cannot be confident that operational best practices are actually being implemented and enforced in this country.

Therefore, the investigation will now enter a second phase that will turn the spotlight on how well the environmental risks associated with fracking are actually regulated and monitored. Consequently this report is being released as an interim report, and as such contains seven interim findings, rather than the usual formal recommendations.

These interim findings are of two kinds. The first four are focused on aspects of oil and gas production that are key to protecting the environment. They are:

• Choosing where to drill.
• Designing and constructing the well.
• Avoiding spills and leaks on the surface.
• Disposing of waste.

Any one of these four managed poorly could lead to contaminants finding their way into groundwater. The potential for important aquifers to be contaminated as a result of fracking is very real. While there is much concern about the chemicals in fracking fluid, the salty water that comes from deep under the ground along with the oil and gas is much greater in volume, and could also contaminate groundwater.

Likewise, when it comes to another major concern, the potential for triggering earthquakes, the same aspects of the process are critical. The process of fracking itself only causes very tiny earthquakes. But if liquids (fracking fluid or wastewater) were to find their way into an already stressed fault, the fault might slip triggering a more significant (though probably small) earthquake.

I have made three interim findings about government oversight and regulation.

The first of these is that the system is complex and fragmented, making oversight extremely important. Unravelling the labyrinthine roles of different central government agencies, and the relevant responsibilities of regional and local government, has been a major exercise in itself.

Such complexity works against open transparent government, and important issues can fall between the cracks, no pun intended.

The second is that regulation may not be fit-for-purpose – companies are perhaps being trusted rather too much to all do 'the right thing'. This applies to protecting health and safety as well as the environment, and is an area currently under review by the Government. The third is that a 'social licence' for fracking has yet to be earned; for example, communication and engagement with local communities has been mixed.

Indeed, as this report was going to print, I encountered the headline "Oil firm to explain illegal flaring" which is a good illustration of why local communities continue to be skeptical. New Zealand is no different to a number of other countries in this regard.

During this investigation it has been a challenge to keep up with the reports on fracking that are being written by and for governments in other countries. Almost all the fracking operations in New Zealand so far have taken place in Taranaki. But oil and gas exploration permits that cover vast areas of the country have been granted to a number of companies. Generalising from the Taranaki experience so far is of limited value.

If, for instance, exploration drilling on the east coast of the North Island reveals the presence of commercial quantities of oil that can be recovered through fracking, an 'oil rush' would likely follow - many exploration wells could be drilled in a very short time with production not far behind. Such rapid scaling up has led to well-publicised problems in other countries. In an article titled 'Gas goes boom' in June this year, The Economist reported that “the pace of change has taken many people by surprise.”

The current Government is hoping for and encouraging an economic future built largely on oil and gas. The question is whether the same effort is being put into preparing for the impacts it may have. The scale and speed of change that could occur requires forethought now. We need to prepare for a future that might take us by surprise. New Zealand has its own geology and its own systems for oversight and regulation. But we can and must learn from other countries about what can go wrong.

The big environmental issue that sits behind fracking is climate change.

Natural gas is the most benign of the fossil fuels; it burns cleanly and provides more energy for each molecule of carbon dioxide emitted than any other fossil fuel. The fall in greenhouse gas emissions in the United States over recent years is in part due to cheap gas obtained through fracking replacing coal.

Consequently, some see fracking as helping slow climate change because it allows coal to be phased out and can act as a ‘transition’ fuel to a low-carbon future. Others argue that huge amounts of gas (and oil to a lesser extent) will continue to lock the world into a fossil fuel future and crowd out investment in alternative sources of energy. This dilemma is examined in this report, but no conclusions either way can be drawn.

There have been calls for a moratorium to be placed on fracking in New Zealand, but I do not think this is justified at present.

Fracking is a complex process and there are many many details that could be put into a report. But with all reports that come from my office, we strive to be clear and concise, as well as accurate. I hope that this report will be a helpful contribution to the public debate.

Dr Jan Wright
Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment


Read or download the complete report in PDF format here





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