Fracking debate reopens with new report

Jan Wright
Jan Wright
Controversy over fracking for oil and gas around the country has erupted again following the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment's call for the Government to overhaul regulations, to better manage environmental risks.

A complete regulatory overhaul may appease some environmentalists, but many wanted a complete moratorium or ban.

The exploration sector is willing to discuss regulatory changes, while highlighting latest technology and ''world class standards'' already in use.

Commissioner Dr Jan Wright said an example of ''immediate priority'' for regulatory overhaul would be the North Island's east coast, from Gisborne to Wairarapa.

In those areas were shale oil deposits of potentially millions of barrels, which would require fracking to release the resource, Dr Wright said in her second fracking report, released yesterday.

Labour responded, calling for the Government to implement Dr Wright's recommendations and outline a national policy statement.

Forest and Bird claimed national and local government regulations were ''woefully inadequate'', calling for a fracking moratorium.

Greenpeace labelled the report ''yet another indictment of the government's cowboy approach'', reiterating its call for an outright fracking ban.

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is a production technique to force water and chemicals into underground rock formations to fracture them and release either trapped oil or gas.

Environmentalists are concerned water aquifers and surrounding land could become contaminated, especially from the chemicals used or spills.

Following her initial fracking report in late 2012, Dr Wright released the 100-page ''Drilling for oil and gas in New Zealand'' report yesterday.

Dr Wright found regulation in New Zealand was not adequate for managing the environmental risks of oil and gas drilling, especially if the industry expanded beyond Taranaki.

Exploration wells are being drilled into the shale deposits of the East Coast Basin, near Dannevirke, Gisborne and soon in Hawkes Bay, Dr Wright said.

''The shale in this part of the country has been compared with the Bakken and Eagle Ford rock formations in the United States, where the number of wells has proliferated in just a few years,'' she said.

Petroleum Exploration and Production Association of New Zealand spokeswoman Janet Carson supported looking at how the regulations governing exploration and fracking could be strengthened.

''The report makes recommendations around well location and integrity, the possibility of leaks or spills, and waste disposal.

''Although current practices are of a high standard, we want to reassure communities that, as the industry grows, the right checks and balances are in place to ensure we are ahead of the game in protecting our workers and the environment,'' she said in a statement.

In New Zealand there have been more than 50 fracking instances in Taranaki and Waikato since 1989, and four in Otago and Southland, the latter to test rock pressure, for water, and two unsuccessful attempts to free up coal seam gas (1995).

The Otago Regional Council, which would consider and administer any fracking applications, confirmed yesterday there had been no applications lodged.

Dr Wright called on regional councils to revise their regulations, saying ''Most council plans do not even distinguish between drilling for water and drilling for oil and gas''.

She said the East Coast Basin differed from Taranaki in several relevant ways.

Apart from the difference in rock formations, the region was drier, very reliant on key aquifers and with major known earthquake faults''Wells would be more vulnerable to damage from seismic activity and therefore more likely to leak into groundwater.

''Increasingly, the region identifies itself as a producer of premium food, and there would be conflicts between this and a mushrooming oil and gas industry,'' Dr Wright said.

Labour's Environment spokeswoman Moana Mackey said Dr Wright's report concluded that while oil and gas drilling could be done safely, the oversight and regulation of the activity was inadequate, inconsistently applied and had not kept pace with the rapid advances in industry and technology.

''It is important we modernise our regulation of this industry to protect our environment, water aquifers and other industries that may be incompatible with a rapid local expansion in exploration,'' Ms Mackey said.

Forest and Bird advocacy manager Kevin Hackwell said there needed to be a moratorium on new oil and gas exploration ''at the very least until adequate national regulations exist''.

''This report calls into serious question the Government's sale of the rights to frack across millions of hectares of the conservation estate, and on private land, without proper environmental safeguards,'' Mr Hackwell said.

Greenpeace New Zealand Programme Director Carmen Gravatt said the Government was pursuing ''its agenda to frack, drill and mine at any cost''.

''It's clear that regulations around fracking are totally inadequate. There must be an immediate ban on this industry in New Zealand,'' she said.

Dr Wright's 2012 interim fracking report found no reason for a New Zealand-wide moratorium on fracking, but emphasised the need for risk management, and found concern enough to warrant further investigation, and the second report.

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