The controversial oil and gas exploration method of
"fracking" is to come under more scrutiny from the
Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment but her
interim report falls short of appeasing environmentalists
calling for a moratorium on the practice.
Oil and gas companies view fracking, or horizontal hydraulic
fracturing, as a tried and tested process capable of
releasing gas that would otherwise be trapped in dense rock,
while environmentalists fear the release of toxic chemicals
used in the process, and adjacent salt water deposits, could
poison aquifers or cause earthquakes.
There has been no fracking for oil and gas in Otago or
Southland, and none is planned, but the areas contain
"unconventional" deposits of oil and gas possibly receptive
to fracking, but which would require resource consents by the
respective regional councils.
Commissioner Jan Wright's 78-page report, released this week,
said the risk of fracking leading to significant
environmental damage was "critically dependent" on great care
at every stage of the process, including the proximity of
wells to aquifers, major faults, well design and
construction, and careful handling of chemicals.
"When fracking is done well, the chance and severity of
environmental damage are small compared to some other
economic activities," she said.
"On the other hand, when it is done badly, the risks are
"Thus, managing operations well right through the process is
very important," Ms Wright said.
The theme of "managing risks" runs throughout the report,
with environmentalists likely to target the lack of
knowledge, or controversy surrounding data on the subject, as
reason enough to at least call a temporary halt.
The National-led Government has promoted oil and gas
exploration and production, and mining, as the cornerstone of
economic recovery and employment.
Energy and Resources Minister Phil Heatley and Environment
Minister Amy Adams welcomed the report findings that fracking
risks to the environment could be effectively managed,
providing best operational practices were followed and
enforced through regulation.
Ms Adams said she had instructed the Ministry for the
Environment to produce clear guidelines on the respective
roles of central and local government over the control of
University of Canterbury environmental chemistry senior
lecturer Dr Sally Gaw said even if operational best practices
were implemented, blow-outs, mechanical failure and human
error all had the potential to contaminate soil, surface
waters and groundwater.
Ms Wright said while there had been calls for a moratorium to
be placed on fracking in New Zealand, "I do not think this is
justified at present".
"But at this stage I cannot be confident that operational
best practices are actually being implemented and enforced in
this country," she said, adding she would next scrutinise how
well environmental risks associated with fracking were
actually being regulated and monitored.
University of Canterbury and Lincoln University Waterways
Centre for Freshwater Management director Prof Jenny
Webster-Brown, saw no reason to risk the effects of fracking,
but fracking was likely an "inevitability" and she described
Ms Wright's report as " timely and balanced".