Editorial: Devil in the detail

Last updated 08:42 04/12/2012

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Fracking can be done safely. It just takes detailed, incisive, well-policed governmental oversight and regulation. Anyone see the problem?

Jan Wright does. At least a potential problem, in this the land of Pike River and leaky homes. The parliamentary commissioner for the environment is yet to be convinced that what she calls New Zealand's "light-handed" regulations are up to ensuring fracking - the process of cracking rocks far below the ground to allow previously inaccessible oil and gas to flow - is kept up to the required standard.

So she's looking further into that. In the meantime, however, her interim finding is that there is no need for the moratorium the Greens have been asking for.

It has generally been received as a balanced report and, as Dr Wright herself notes, she has ended up with conclusions broadly consistent with reviews done elsewhere in the world.

What distinguishes us, perhaps, is the ease with which she will find almost instant acceptance of her scepticism about the adequacy of our systems for ensuring the process is environmentally safe.

Dr Wright makes a strong case that the regulatory oversight is complex and fragmented. Example: The suitability of the precise location of each well really matters, but permits can be granted over large areas, leaving companies to decide for themselves exactly where to drill within those boundaries.

What's more, the Environment Ministry isn't providing any specific guidance for councils on fracking - though Dr Wright wonders whether the Environmental Protection Authority might be a better outfit for this job.

In Britain, wells must pass an examination. Not so here.

And how about this? Companies are required to provide information to councils, right? But Dr Wright says this is often highly technical information and there's no guarantee it is understood and being used to enforce best (or even good) practice.

There won't be a moratorium any time soon, much to the concern of a group of opponents in Kaikoura. But this doesn't in itself represent a green light for any development. Much still rides on the second part of the commissioner's report.

Dr Wright has found fracking is potentially OK. But the question remains whether we can set up an operational environment where we can be confident it will be.

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- The Marlborough Express

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