OPINION: 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 the 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 seeking.
It's generally being received as a balanced report and, as Dr Wright herself notes, she has ended up with conclusions broadly consistent with reviews carried out elsewhere in the world. What distinguishes us, arguably, is the ease with which she will find near-instant acceptance of her classic scepticism about the adequacy of our present system for ensuring that the process is environmentally safe.
Dr Wright makes a strong case that the present regulatory oversight is complex and fragmented. You won't find anyone rising to their feet in indignation to protest: "No it isn't!"
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 where exactly to drill within those boundaries.
What's more, the Ministry for the Environment 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, anyway).
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 that this is often highly technical information and there's no guarantee that it is always being understood and used to enforce best - or even good - practice.
Then, beautifully, she concludes that it appears fracking has not yet earned its "social licence" to operate in New Zealand.
It has been operating, of course, in Taranaki. The group Climate Justice Taranaki, an alliance of environmental groups, hapu and business, has said that "in light of" the commissioner's report, it is demanding a nationwide ban or moratorium on the process.
However it's a bit of a stretch to be, in essence, citing the componentry of her report to support quite so contradictory a conclusion.
In any case, there won't be a moratorium any time soon. But this doesn't in itself represent a green light for development in Southland or anywhere else. Much still rides on the second part of the commissioner's report.
She has found fracking is potentially OK. But the question still remains whether we can set up an operational environment where we can be confident it will be.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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