OPINION: Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright has a reputation for producing well-researched, dispassionate and readable reports on environmental matters. Her latest report on hydraulic fracturing – fracking in common parlance – is no exception.
It contains messages for environmentalists, the industry and government, both central and local.
The first is that there is no evidence that cracking rocks to access oil and gas is inherently hazardous to the environment. In fact, it may be beneficial. Natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel. When burnt it produces less carbon dioxide than coal and oil. In the United States the recent drop in greenhouse gas emissions has been attributed, in part, to gas obtained through fracking replacing coal.
The second message is that to be done safely, fracking must be done according to best practice. In New Zealand, fracking has been used in Taranaki since 1989. There is no evidence of it contaminating groundwater or causing earthquakes that could be felt at the surface – the two biggest fears of environmentalists. The Taranaki experience is not universal, however. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that fracking is the most likely cause of the highly publicised contamination of drinking water in the town of Pavillion, in Wyoming.
The third message is that the industry must be properly regulated. The commissioner's report suggests that is not the case. "Oversight of the industry is complex and fragmented," Dr Wright says. "Regulation may be too light-handed." She reports that the New Zealand regime relies on companies being motivated to "do the right thing" by consumers, workers and the environment and that companies appear to be not only regulating themselves, but "monitoring their own performance". If the Pike River tragedy has taught New Zealanders anything it is that that is not a satisfactory state of affairs in high-risk industries.
Companies may start out with the best of intentions but when commercial pressures come to bear, independent, informed oversight of their activities is vital. Otherwise lives, livelihoods and the environment can be put at risk.
Dr Wright is now embarking on the second stage of her inquiry, to assess the adequacy of the regulatory regime surrounding fracking.
If it bears out her preliminary findings, the Government must act, especially as there are indications that the use of the technology could grow exponentially over the next few years as previously unviable oil and coal deposits on the east coast of the North Island become financially viable.
Fracking has the potential to reduce New Zealand's dependency on imported fossil fuels, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and boost the economy. However, it also has the potential to do physical harm to workers and damage the environment.
The Government cannot abdicate its responsibilities. It must set the conditions under which fracking can be employed and it must ensure they are met.
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