OPINION: Even its name makes it difficult to love. Fracking - short for hydraulic fracturing - has become a high-profile target for environmentalists of late, and there have been numerous calls for the practice to be banned, either permanently or until robust regulations are in place. The "anti" camp has not been confined to the Greens. A quake-shy Christchurch City Council voted unanimously this year to ban the practice - in which high-pressure blasts of water, sand and chemicals fracture rock to release oil and gas - within its boundaries.
Perhaps the move was largely symbolic - the mining industry is unlikely to be pushing to set up too many fracking-based oil or gas extraction projects in the middle of the garden city. Given fracking can cause minor earthquakes in some circumstances, the councillors' stance was understandable.
However, such decisions should not be based on fear or emotion. With the extremes in position on the practice and the potential economic impact, there is the clearest need for decision-making based on robust, thorough, science.
This week's release, then, of an interim report on fracking is both timely and important. Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright's investigation acknowledges potential pitfalls in the practice, but does not suggest it ought to be banned or even temporarily halted. Indeed, as with similar investigations overseas, Dr Wright concludes that fracking is safe, if it is properly regulated and managed. If not, she points to the potential for "significant environmental impacts, including polluting water and triggering earthquakes".
The "ifs", and risks, are significant, and it is there where the Green focus ought to lie, rather than pointlessly calling for a moratorium. The Government was never of a mind to hobble the mining industry, and Dr Wright's report will encourage its position. However, it would do well to give urgency to Dr Wright's warnings. The commissioner suggests there is too much trust in the mining companies to do the right thing. Pike River shows the dangers in that approach.
She also expresses concern about the current regulations being too fragmented and complicated - and even about how they are being applied. Dr Wright adds that these concerns will be the next focus of her investigation - likely to take another eight months or so - and that she will not hesitate to call for a moratorium on the practice if her work concludes the step is justified. Meantime, the Government is demanding the Environment Ministry produce clear guidelines on the roles of central and local authorities in fracking control. This is appropriate.
As with Dr Wright's report, the guidelines need to be driven by logic and science - but also to include a strong focus on clarity in their framing and transparency in their practice. The use of toxic chemicals ought to be publicly notified as part of any application, along with due recognition that different geological structures might require differing approaches, and that any risk to aquifers and waterways will be weighted most strongly when any fracking application is being considered.
Despite the Christchurch council's concerns and stance, this is a subject best handled by science-based national guidelines rather than local politics.
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