Do the financial benefits of fracking outweigh the environmental risks for the Nelson region?
Fracking is a word that has entered contemporary culture with astonishing speed. A few years ago, it was used only by oil-industry insiders to abbreviate the term for hydraulically fracturing an oil or gas well. While the process is still the same, today fracking means different things to different people.
Navigating these conflicting definitions is at the heart of an international debate about energy, the environment and the economy.
As the Nelson region attempts to find the right balance between tourism and industry, the debate about fracking has emerged as a local issue as well.
For oil and gas companies, fracking is an overwhelmingly positive term. It allows them to dramatically increase the amount of oil or gas from a well site, in some cases by as much as 365 per cent.
The method is an integral part of the profitability of the industry, says Tracy Dillimore, the Ministry for Economic Development.
"Hydraulic fracturing involves pumping a water-sand-chemical mixture into underground rock layers where the oil or gas is trapped," she says.
"The pressure of the water creates tiny cracks in the rock. Although the cracks are widened by just a few millimetres, this makes substantial improvements to the ultimate recovery of oil and gas.
"Without the use of fracking, a large portion of the current onshore oil and gas production in New Zealand would not be able to be produced economically."
While some have hailed this new method of extraction as the miracle "bridge technology" that will keep energy prices low and reduce dependence on politically volatile oil-rich states, award-winning documentaries such as Josh Fox's Gasland have shown a nightmare side of the story where groundwater is contaminated, even becoming flammable, and air is polluted by flares and the dispersal of chemically laced sprays.
The film has become a focal point for international opposition and played a large part in the banning of the practice in France, parts of the United States and other countries.
As it is screened in town halls across New Zealand, the film is inspiring a groundswell of opposition, which in turn has led to an investigation by Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright.
With Dr Wright's report due in November, the industry has submitted a flurry of applications for new wells in Taranaki, Hawke's Bay and elsewhere in New Zealand.
Ms Dillimore is confident that the commissioner will not recommend a moratorium on the practice.
"In New Zealand, fracking is done to the highest international standards," she says.
"Fracking is carried out by trained and experienced international specialists."
While international specialists are being flown in to work on the well sites, finding local knowledge of the implications of the practice is a challenge.
The Tasman District Council's new chief executive, Lindsay McKenzie, dealt with the issue of fracking in his previous job in Gisborne. A member of his staff went to Canada on an industry-funded trip to research the impact of the practice.
His findings were supportive of the extraction method in New Zealand.
According to Chris Choat, spokesman for the Tasman District Council, there are no pending applications that might involve fracking in the region.
But the aborted Greywolf mining episode of 2011 is a vivid reminder of the lucrative minerals that lie under our feet.
If fracking were to increase the profitability of the extraction, it might be enough to outweigh local protests and even iwi opposition.
Although the Tasman District Council is not looking to follow councils such as Christchurch and Selwyn in banning fracking from the region, the Golden Bay community board has been asked to take a proactive approach to the practice.
The request, from Phil Clearwater, chairman of the Spreydon-Heathcote Community Board in Christchurch, is part of a grassroots opposition to fracking.
"We urge your community board to advocate on behalf of your local community and declare your ward a fracking-free one," he wrote.
"The board members are concerned about the adverse effect of the fracking in relation to environmental degradation and general liveability issues for people living in regions where fracking is permitted."
Golden Bay Community Board chairwoman Carolyn McLellan is urging the board to conduct their own investigation of the issues surrounding the controversial methodology.
"The Golden Bay Community Board will be particularly vigilant on this matter. However, as with the Greywolf application, we will need to rely on iwi and other groups to keep us informed if there are any applications, as the community board do not get notified when these applications are lodged," she said.
While the debate rages over the safety of fracking and the potential for wider environmental impact, Taranaki secondary school teacher Sarah Roberts is dealing with the effects of 30 wells within a kilometre of her home.
She lives with an omnipresent chemical stench which smells "like nail polish", she says.
She deals with permanent flares that light up the night sky and she watches in horror as her neighbour takes "produced water" with toxic chemicals from the well and spreads it on his fields.
One of the main objections to fracking is the handling of the thousands of litres of this "produced water" that comes up from a well once the gas starts to emerge.
Ms Dillimore says the fluid is mostly water, but admits that it may contain "potassium chloride, ammonium bisulfite, sodium or potassium carbonate, ethylene glycol" and ambiguously, "acids". These admitted chemicals are associated with a raft of known ailments, ranging from respiratory illnesses to skin allergies and worse.
"I think the message has to get out there because I think we're being shafted," Ms Roberts says.
"I think they are doing what they are doing because no-one realises it. If the public really knew, they would be absolutely beside themselves."
Cows graze the land in Taranaki doused with chemical-laden produced water, she claims. Ms Roberts watches her 14-year-old niece, who lives nearby, struggle with rashes, dizzy spells and nausea, and some parents at the local Ngaere school have forbidden their children to drink the water or even wash their hands because of fears about possible contamination.
Ms Roberts has taken her concerns to the Stratford District Council and the Taranaki Regional Council.
She says the bureaucracies are too myopically focused on their areas to handle the comprehensive effects of fracking. While the Stratford District Council issues consents for the land use and operations at a well site, the Taranaki Regional Council focuses only on the discharge consent for air, land and water.
Taken in isolation, the activities of a fracking site do not seem to have cross-boundary effects, but Ms Roberts is concerned that not enough testing is being undertaken to protect her community.
She is even worried that the councils are not testing for the right things.
"We kind of wondered about the noise and the smell and things like that," she says. "We assumed that the regional council was policing it and that if there was anything bad, they would know about it.
"What I have discovered is that they are not policing it. Over and over again, they are just doing visual inspections.
"When they do some testing, we found breach after breach where nothing happens to the oil companies."
In its application to the Taranaki Regional Council, Canadian company TAG Oil, which operates the Cheal sites near Ms Roberts' house, indicated that it would be using quantities of the following chemicals: XLFC-1B gelling agent, Xcide 102 biocide, Wax-Chek 5222 paraffin inhibitor, US-40 solvent. Saraline 185V solvent, GBW-12CD enzyme and CXB-6 crosslinking agent.
This cocktail is even more toxic than the ones cited by Ms Dillimore. Even with heavy dilution, residents are concerned about the two accepted means of dispersal. One is spreading on paddocks as a kind of fertiliser and the other involves pumping it down a well shaft, which sometimes has only a thin casing, where there is the potential for leeching into the groundwater.
At a hearing on this subject late last year, Ms Roberts' concerns were dismissed by the commissioner, Michael Lester. "It has been determined that the effects on the environment will be no more than minor," said Mr Lester in the report. He also says that fracking "will provide a positive effect for the community and for the nation in the provision of employment and in the supply of gas and petroleum".
Lifting the lid on the world of oil and gas exploration in Taranaki reveals a series of curious coincidences.
Fred McLay is director of resource management at the Taranaki Regional Council and personally approved the discharge permits for fracking fluid at well sites in the region.
Before working at the council, he worked for two years at Shell Todd Oil, which operates wells at Kapuni in Taranaki, where fracking is used.
Taranaki Regional Council chairman Basil Chamberlain says this coincidence did not influence Mr McLay's professional assessment of applications.
"The suggestion that a council officer was inappropriately predisposed and able to influence outcomes to favour Shell Todd Oil is factually incorrect and is also either ignorant of the applicable processes or downright mischievous."
Even the independent GNS Science report that is cited to assuage fears over admitted seismic activity has connections with the oil industry.
"Technically, fracking can be classed as causing an induced seismic disturbance," Ms Dillimore says.
"GNS Science reports that seismic activity associated with fracking is generally less than magnitude 2.0."
While the report from GNS was written by Dr Rosemary Quinn, the chairman of GNS board of directors is Tom Campbell, also one of the directors of Todd Corporation, the company that operates the Kapuni well sites where fracking is used.
Mr Campbell says he was not involved in the writing of the report in any way.
These coincidences, along with numerous other examples of blurred lines between business, politics and public service, have led Ms Roberts to a resigned acceptance of the status quo in Taranaki.
"There are too many people in here who are implicated to think that if I have a concern as an individual, I'm going to get a hearing," she says.
"If we can't save Taranaki, the least we can do is make sure people realise what's happening here. It's not just one little area. The whole of New Zealand is about to get done."
Ms Dillimore says fracking has already been used at 53 wells throughout the country.
A substantial "block offer" for the expanded use of fracking and other extraction methods is open for submissions from oil and gas companies, she says.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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