The hysteria sweeping the country over fracking is like a modern-day version of the Chicken Licken story.
It is not the fear of the sky falling in but of what is happening underground that is seeing the formation of anti-fracking groups. Councils in Christchurch, Hawkes Bay, Dunedin, Hastings and Kaikoura, as well as many community boards, have jumped on the Greens’ “Don’t Frack with NZ” bandwagon. It is time to inject some science and common sense into the debate.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, has been used in New Zealand for decades. Some 25 years ago, fracking was used in the construction of the Clyde Dam while I was undertaking my doctoral thesis in geotechnical engineering. Fracking is used to develop geothermal energy fields and to enhance oil and gas recovery in the petroleum industry. It is similar to “well stimulation” in the water industry.
As Nick points out he knows a bit more about this stuff than the average MP or city councillor jumping on the bandwagon.
The first environmental risk cited by those seeking a ban is that fracking can trigger small earthquakes. This is true for all sorts of engineering works. A magnitude 4 earthquake was triggered by the filling of Lake Pukaki in the 1960s. Lots of small earthquakes are triggered by constructing pile foundations for buildings, bridges and wharves. Hundreds of small quakes are occurring with the current geothermal energy developments north of Taupo. The few small earthquakes that could be caused by fracking need to be considered in the context of there being 18,000 naturally occurring earthquakes over magnitude 2.5 across the country a year. New Zealanders have more to fear from the vibration of their mobile phone than that caused by fracking.
Nice. That puts it into context.
The second concern is pollution of New Zealand’s waterways and aquifers. These risks are also low. The proppants used are just fillers. They pose fewer health risks than sand in the family sand pit. The lubricants have a toxicity similar to dish washing liquid. The far greater risk to water quality is the natural contaminants from underground that may be picked up by the water during drilling or fracking of a well. This is particularly true of geothermal wells in volcanic strata that often contain toxic chemicals.
The argument here is not that fracking is risk-free but rather that the risks are manageable. This is the conclusion of the Taranaki Regional Council which has overseen 20 years of petroleum industry fracking without incident. The United States Environmental Protection Authority has come to a similar conclusion. A detailed inquiry just published by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering in the United Kingdom also concludes the technology can be used safely. We do need to ensure wells are properly sealed, that drilling and fracking wastewater is responsibly managed and that ground vibrations are monitored and minimised.
As Nick says fracking is not new, and it is about risk minimisation and management. The calls by the Greens and associated politicians to ban fracking temporarily or indefinitely are the modern day anti-science witch-hunt.
There are huge geothermal energy resources in the upper North Island that can be developed only with fracking. It is contradictory for the Greens to campaign on a platform of creating 100,000 jobs from renewable energy, identify geothermal as a key opportunity and then propose a fracking ban that would kill this industry.
Just as they whine loudly about affordable housing and bitterly oppose freeing up more land to reduce land prices.
Fracking technologies are underpinning an energy revolution in the United States. Huge unconventional shale gas resources in Louisiana and Pennsylvania are coming on stream, enabling gas to replace coal-fired electricity generation. Gas emits one-third the greenhouse gas emissions of coal. This low-cost gas is also reducing American dependence on the Middle East.
So fracking can be good relatively for the environment.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, in response to demands from the Greens, is undertaking an inquiry and will report by Christmas. I fear this will unfold in a similar way to when the Greens demanded a Royal Commission on Genetic Modification, but then rubbished its conclusions.
I am passionate about New Zealand’s natural environment. I want to bequeath my children and grandchildren a nation with a great lifestyle, a strong economy and a clean environment. That will only be possible if we take a rational and science-based approach to our natural resources and risk management. Fracking may have too many letters in common with our favourite swear word, but it is the least of New Zealand’s environmental worries.
An excellent column.