Study of fracking finds lax control

HELEN HARVEY
Last updated 08:19 28/11/2012
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Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright

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A highly anticipated report into fracking has raised concerns over the way the controversial practice is being monitored and regulated.

In her interim report released yesterday, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, rejected calls for a moratorium, but fell a long way short of giving the practice a thumbs-up.

She thought drilling companies were being trusted rather too much to all do the right thing and said she was concerned about how fragmented and complicated the regulations were and how they were being applied.

"If fracking is not done well it can have significant environmental impacts, including polluting water and triggering earthquakes.

"I am also concerned that regulation may be too light-handed, particularly if fracking opens the door to a large-scale and widespread oil and gas boom with a lot of different companies involved."

In the report, Dr Wright said the environmental risk posed by fracking could be managed effectively provided best practices were implemented and enforced.

"But at this stage I cannot be confident that operational best practices are actually being implemented and enforced in this country."

The report also said: "Companies appear to be not only regulating themselves, but monitoring their own performance."

Regulation was light-handed and oil companies saying "trust us" was not good enough, she said yesterday.

Dr Wright said she would not hesitate to recommend a moratorium if any issues caused her alarm during the next phase of her investigation, which would focus in-depth on how the environmental risks of fracking were regulated and monitored.

The commissioner's investigation had been called for as debate about hydraulic fracturing, the process of injecting chemicals and water into rock to help extract gas, grew heated over the past two years.

And while all the major energy industry players were welcoming the report's findings yesterday, there was plenty for the environmentalists to sharpen their knives on.

No-one from the Taranaki Regional Council, responsible for regulation of the practice in Taranaki, would comment yesterday, but a statement was posted on the TRC's website.

"This council is working closely with government agencies on a number of relevant reviews aimed at improving the effectiveness and efficiency of regulation of the sector, and providing appropriate public assurance," it said.

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Government regulation was complex and fragmented, Dr Wright said, and it was an exercise just to untangle the different roles held by local government and central government agencies.

"When we get complexity, things fall through the cracks."

Until last year the TRC didn't require a resource consent for fracking, but it did now, which was an improvement, she said.

Dr Wright cited contamination at Kapuni, an incident where heavy rain caused wastewater to overflow, and recent flaring not complying with the resource consent, which she will be looking into.

Her interim findings covered the aspects of oil and gas production: choosing where to drill, designing and constructing the well, avoiding spills and leaks on the surface and disposing of waste, and the roles of government: complexity and accountability, light- handed regulation and a social licence to operate.

The public's trust had not been earned, she said.

"Full disclosure of fracking fluids might go some way to encouraging that trust."

Environmental activists Sarah Roberts, David Morrison and Michael Self said they agreed a social licence to operate had not been earned.

"A social licence is not building a swimming pool, sponsoring an art festival, supporting the local rugby team, investing in a museum, or providing a scholarship at a local secondary school."

The report highlighted the trio's concerns and vindicated them, Ms Roberts said.

Like the Green Party and Climate Justice Taranaki, the trio thinks there should be a moratorium on fracking.

Todd Energy chief executive Paul Moore said the company welcomed the commissioner's report.

"We would like to assure the public that Todd's hydraulic fracturing operations are effectively designed and executed. We also note that a focus of the final report will be on the adequacy of current regulatory enforcement. We understand the need for public confidence in the regulatory regime and welcome the PCE's scrutiny in this area. In our view, the regulatory framework provided by the Taranaki Regional Council is consistent with industry-leading practice."

- Taranaki Daily News

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