How to get a fracking driver's licence

Of all the things the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment identifies as vital to swinging the vote on tolerating hydraulic fracturing, the most important by far is the need for what she calls a "social licence" for the contentious practice.

At the moment, no such licence exists. While a large number of people mildly support oil and gas extraction as one way for the country to get richer, a far more vocal and committed opposition has successfully made dire-sounding "fracking" a bete noire for a significant chunk of the population.

As the commissioner, Dr Jan Wright, says in her interim report, published this week: "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."

Given the fears around fracking, surprise is not a helpful addition to the emotions already stirring, and giving vent to a myriad of objections.

The report all but dismisses any serious risk of damaging seismic activity from fracking but you no sooner deal with the problem of earthquakes and the argument turns to water quality.

Any prospect of fracked oil and gas reaching water tables is "remote", the report said, but then the argument turns to whether the industry employs enough people.

You can point out that every oil and gas sector technical job pays substantially better than most other trades in New Zealand, and that as a land-based activity fracking will generate jobs in oil and gas processing.

The argument next shifts to whether petroleum royalties are high enough.

And on top of all that, some question the point of going after more oil and gas anyway. Haven't we already got a problem with climate change?

That, certainly, is a good point. So is the concern in Dr Wright's report that poor handling of wastewater and fracking fluids at surface level is a real worry.

Also valid are concerns about the tangle of central and local government agencies involved in regulating such activity; Dr Wright said companies are being too readily trusted to self-regulate and that many regional councils know nothing of fracking and need to upskill.

For example, if the fracking proposed for the east coast of the North Island by TAG Oil, Apache Corporation and others is targeting different geologies to those in Taranaki, the onus will be on those would-be frackers to show why it will be OK there.

So far, they've done a terrible job. Even the industry's lobby group, the Petroleum Exploration Association of New Zealand, has only recently beefed up its national headquarters from a virtual one-man band.

Meanwhile, many in the industry remain blind to the fact that "educating" New Zealanders about the economic benefits of oil and gas generally, and fracking specifically, is unlikely to come from its opponents.

Their fear of the environmental repercussions is often mixed with an almost congenital dislike of oil companies. These die-hard opponents will never be persuaded, but they have virtually had the field to themselves to sow fear uncontested. No wonder a lot of people are worried.

In that respect, Dr Wright is in an invidious position. As an independent officer of Parliament, her job is to take a dispassionate look at hard issues.

She made plenty of enemies among environmental activists when she said 1080 was a good poison to use if we wanted to protect native birds and bush. She may make enemies again now.

She has essentially given the demonised fracking a clean bill of health in principle, if not quite in practice. In doing so, she is helping to build the "social licence" she fears doesn't exist, and conceding through gritted teeth that no-one knows yet whether fracked oil and gas will make climate change better or worse.

If it kills plans for lignite mining in Southland, it might improve New Zealand's emissions. If it crowds out renewables, then it might make it worse.

The Government seems to be listening at some level. It rushed out a swag of new oil and gas industry health and safety regulations to coincide with the PCE report.

But it needs something much bolder than that if it ever wants to change the debate. Lurking in its own Green Growth Advisory Group report from earlier this year is the proposal to establish a sovereign wealth fund, as Norway has done.

If such a fund was vested with the royalties from oil and gas exploration and this new-found wealth invested elsewhere, Kiwis could more easily see the benefits flowing from fracking.

If it can do it with the funds from asset sales, it can do it with oil and gas.

It should get on with educating people on those benefits, or expect never to win on this issue.