Fracking is all on in New Zealand. For now.
Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) Jan Wright has released her interim report into fracking, and while she expressed concerns over the need to improve industry regulation, she doesn’t think a fracking ban or a moratorium is justified.
The report looked at the background of fracking, assessed the environmental risks of and looked at whether New Zealand policy and regulation was up to scratch in terms of being able to manage these risks.
Her conclusion was that any environmental risks can be managed providing that operational best practices are put in place and enforced properly.
She did write, however that at this stage she “cannot be confident that operational best practices are actually being implemented and enforced in this country".
With the current government enthusiastic about a future built on oil and gas, she said the question was whether the same effort is being put into preparing for the impact it may have.
Her investigation will continue, with part two looking at government accountability, regulation and community confidence.
She told the Herald she would not hesitate to impose a ban if the second half of her investigation revealed that fracking was too dangerous.
"Recommending a moratorium is a big thing to do and I wouldn't do it lightly. It's a business employing lots of people with livelihoods at stake here. But I am the environmental commissioner so the environment must be primary concern. I've not seen anything yet that it is of high and urgent concern but that is not to say that everything has been done perfectly so far."
Reactions from the experts, however, are mixed.
Professor Jenny Webster-Brown, director of the Waterways Centre for Freshwater Management at the University of Canterbury and Lincoln University, said the report was timely and balanced, and she supported the PCE’s call for effective regulation. However, from a philosophical standpoint, she’s not a fan.
"I'm afraid I cannot see why we should risk the environmental effects of fracking, in order to extract every last drop of the non-renewable fossil fuel resource. It is a stop-gap measure at best, and one which we could well regret. Surely the money and ingenuity dedicated to the development of fracking technology would be better redirected into the development of alternative fuels?”
Dr Sally Gaw, senior lecturer in environmental chemistry at the University of Canterbury, was vehemenently against.
"Even if operational best practices are implemented, blow-outs, mechanical failure and human error have the potential to contaminate soil, surface waters and groundwater,” she said.
“The consequences of a contamination incident have been understated in the report as there are limited to no options for remediating groundwater and soil once contamination has occurred."
Others were in support of the process and had confidence in New Zealand’s ability to regulate.
Rosalind Archer, associate professor of engineering science at the University of Auckland, said she anticipates that “fracturing operations currently being conducted in New Zealand will be shown to follow all relevant international standards for well siting, design and construction".
The conclusion to the interim report is no doubt disappointing to many. An alliance of 16 community, hapu, environment and business groups from around New Zealand, including 350 Aotearoa, Climate Justice Aotearoa and Frack Free Aotearoa, are still demanding a moratorium.
In a statement issued today, it said it was staunchly opposed to fracking because it can "poison water, pollute air and contaminate soil, threatening human and animal health. It can harm the farming, tourism and wine industries that rely on our clean, green environment and healthy communities".
It's urging the government to move onto developing an effective energy transition strategy, affordable public transport systems, and sustainable agriculture that doesn’t rely heavily on petrochemicals.