Time to move on? It's time for some facts

Let's put a few fracking facts on the table. A recent Taranaki Daily News editorial (February 24, Having Scientific Cake And Eating It Too) asserted that "scientists believe fracking is safe" and "it's time to move on".

I understand the temptation to rely on the conveyor belt of industry-generated press releases. It's easier and quicker but it's no excuse. It should not stop the media from working even harder to acquire independent information about fracking.

The practice of fracking is complex. Neither does it help that a veil of secrecy is placed over it by the various vested interests.

However, if you too also believe the endless, well-oiled spin about economy, jobs, and how safe it is "because we do it differently in New Zealand" then this one's for you.

1. Contrary to the Taranaki Regional Council (TRC) saying that fracking is safe, their own paperwork consistently shows that consents have been breached for years without the council, in many cases, writing up so much as an incident report or abatement notice. I refer here to actual on-site drilling and the disposal of fracking fluids. Report after report shows that when TRC inspects well sites it is often done visually and conducting any chemical tests is comparatively rare. You can't find water problems if you're not scientifically looking for them.

2. Attempting to spread the gospel, the TRC has been speaking with other regional councils about their much-touted November 2011 report. My favourite bit is the disclaimer within it that states: "The hydraulic fracturing and geologic information in this report has largely been supplied by oil and gas companies in the region and is believed to be accurate and reliable. However, no liability is accepted for any opinions expressed or for any errors or omissions in the information supplied." Isn't this rather like the fox getting in to the henhouse?

3. The TRC's crowing about their commissioned Geological and Nuclear Sciences (GNS) report giving fracking the seismic "all-clear" is diminished somewhat by the relationship between the GNS chairman of the "independent" board of directors and oil. Tom Campbell is also a director of the Todd Corporation - think Shell Todd Oil Services (STOS).

4. Then there is the case of the Pohokura consents. The TRC's Fred McLay, having worked for 18 years at TRC, then went to work for STOS for two years. Part of his brief was to develop 24 new wells for consent. He then returned to the TRC, and to the new role of Director, Resource Management, which would have put him in the position to oversee the approval of at least some of those consents. However you frame it, this is a conflict of interest and a perfect example of regulator capture. You can't seriously have the builder also potentially signing off as the building inspector.

5. One of the PR lines often used is that, in terms of water contamination risk, fracking in New Zealand is safer than overseas "because we drill so much deeper here and well below the aquifers". Yet TRC and oil company documents show that drilling has occurred at very shallow levels. One example is Manutahi A and B. They were fracked in 2005 at depths of 1157-1179 and 1160-1175 metres respectively. Yet, the "freshwater interface", or aquifer, was as close as 900 metres.

6. The New Zealand oil industry denies ever using the controversial cocktail known as BTEX - benzene, toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene - of which benzene is a carcinogen. However, three of these chemicals were found at the Kapuni site owned by STOS. In a report published by TRC in June last year, and tabled in Parliament last week, it found that levels exceeded Ministry of Environment guidelines at a number of sites and the groundwater beneath well "blowdown" pits was described as unsuitable for drinking or stock use, and unsuitable for irrigation at two sites.

Indeed, when Ngaere resident Sarah Roberts spoke to the South Taranaki District Council late last year about the TRC's findings, which they were previously unaware of, within hours they screened the Hawera water supply, fed by the Kapuni Stream, for BTEX.

If the oil companies, TRC and the Government have complete faith in the safety of fracking then we, the public, should be shown an open hand. How about this for starters:

1. Fully disclose what's in the fracking chemicals. Not a partial list, but the whole 400-odd chemicals used in one frack job. Oil companies say it's a commercially sensitive secret recipe not unlike KFC's 11 secret herbs and spices. That's their excuse for not disclosing its sheer toxicity.

2. Start publicly notifying consents. If, as they assure us, the effects are minor then let the public decide by giving us full transparency. Ask the people of Pavillion, Wyoming or Vernal, Utah or Youngstown, Ohio, or the thousands of other places now dealing with water contamination, ozone levels off the charts, and markedly increased seismic events how they feel. The US Environmental Protection Agency, using science, is now regularly uncovering extensive problems.

3. Oil companies should be required to independently test the water before the drilling of a well commences, during and after the job is done.

4. Advanced tests, such as putting tracer chemicals in the mix to see if they end up in drinking water, should be mandatory in each frack job.

5. Determine in law who pays for any accident. The Rena tab is being picked up by the taxpayer and litigation will likely prove relatively fruitless. Oil companies have a history of ducking liability for any accidents if they can.

6. Ask the Petroleum Exploration and Production Association of New Zealand (PEPANZ) to assist by requiring their industry members to action the ideas above. If fracking is so safe then why wouldn't they?

Finally, stop the old tactic of sidelining anyone who questions fracking, and its regulation, as nutters or eco-terrorists.

We are not moving on until an international panel of independent scientists has given fracking a big tick.

I suspect we'll be waiting awhile.

Taranaki Daily News