Hydraulic fracturing. Why you should be concerned — updated

Hydraulic fracturing. Why you should be concerned — updated

Fracking. It’s big business. Australian-based BHP Billiton paid $5 billion (NZ$6 billion) for fracking (aka 'fraccing') rights for a site in Arkansas earlier this year. But the drilling technique, which is used to stimulate the production of oil and natural gas, has copped much criticism in the US, Europe and Australia for its detrimental impacts on the environment, and now there are concerns around its use in New Zealand. Today New Zealand Petroleum & Minerals, which manages the government’s oil, gas, mineral and coal resources released a faq sheet claiming it’s not that bad at all.

The fracking process has been around for since 1821, when it was used to extract natural gas in New York. It works by injecting fluids underground at high pressures, fracturing the formations, which allows oil and gas to flow more freely from the formation. The liquids used are often made up of hazardous carcinogenic materials toxic enough to contaminate underground water resources. There’s a good breakdown of the exact chemicals and their associated impacts here.

The European Parliament's Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety recently requested a study into the impacts of fracking, with scientists concluding "at a time when sustainability is key to future operations it can be questioned whether the injection of toxic chemicals in the underground should be allowed, or whether it should be banned". The committee noted that fracking would restrict or exclude any later use of the contaminated layer.

Earlier this year The New York Times obtained “thousands” internal documents form the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that revealed grave health and environmental risks. The article stated: 

The documents reveal that the wastewater, which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle.
Other documents and interviews show that many E.P.A. scientists are alarmed, warning that the drilling waste is a threat to drinking water in Pennsylvania. Their concern is based partly on a 2009 study, never made public, written by an E.P.A. consultant who concluded that some sewage treatment plants were incapable of removing certain drilling waste contaminants and were probably violating the law.
The Times also found never-reported studies by the E.P.A. and a confidential study by the drilling industry that all concluded that radioactivity in drilling waste cannot be fully diluted in rivers and other waterways. 

Why should we be concerned? For starters, when the New Zealand Government’s near-final draft of the New Zealand Energy Strategy (NZES) was leaked earlier this year, it revealed a continued emphasis on fossil fuel extraction. Minister of Energy and Resources Hekia Parata stated in the draft's opening:  

“More than 1.2 million square kilometers of our exclusive economic zone are likely to be underlain by sedimentary basins thick enough to generate petroleum...For too long now we have not made the most of the wealth hidden in our hills, under the ground, and in our oceans. It is a priority of this government to responsibly develop those resources.” 

The fracking of shale for oil and gas extraction is already occurring in Taranaki, and is being planned for areas throughout the country. Fracking sites are currently controlled and monitored by the Department of Labour in accordance with the Health and Safety in Employment Act, but only a few days ago Green MP David Clendon described the fracking process as “very dangerous”.

“New Zealand doesn't need to resort to high-risk, dated technologies like fracking which could wreck our clean green brand, when we have a wealth of smart green energy opportunities that will deliver real prosperity,” he said.

What New Zealand Petroleum & Minerals has to say

But the New Zealand Petroleum & Minerals is singing a different tune altogether and in its newly released faq sheet, it says that as a process that’s been used around the world for over 50 years now, technology and knowledge has improved the fracking processes, making it “increasingly efficient with lower impact on the environment”.

And what of its potential contamination of the water supply? The faq sheet states: 

“It is very unlikely that fracking could contaminate water supplies in New Zealand. Here, fracking is usually carried out in rock at least several hundred metres deep – far below aquifers used for drinking water or irrigation."

In addition, aquifers near fracking zones are isolated and protected with a steel casing that is cemented in place, and fracking fluids must be disposed of responsibly.” 

You can read the New Zealand Petroleum & Minerals faq sheet here and its fact sheet HERE.

The Science Media Centre has collated comment on the issue from Australian experts Gavin Mudd, lecturer in environmental engineering at Monash University and Dr Rob Jeffrey, Research Programme Leader, Petroleum engineering CSIRO. 

Gavin Mudd 

"The process does deserve significant environmental attention due to the potential severity of long-term groundwater impacts. Comparing the impacts entirely depends on what you compare it to — such as normal coal mining and energy production, conventional gas, baseload solar thermal or hydro-electricity. 

"There is some research which sheds reasonable doubt on the purported lower greenhouse gas intensity of coal seam or shale gas due to large diffuse methane emissions. Given that the impacts are still poorly understood, it is difficult to make an accurate and fair comparison of the role of fraccing for gas. 

"In the current public discussion, the impacts from chemical use are easily misrepresented, and are well worthy of some attention. The primary issues remain long-term groundwater impacts from coal seam or shale gas projects. More accurate data on groundwater impacts and especially greenhouse gas emissions is critically needed. 

"At present, the industry is in media relations mode — and still fails to grasp the significance of the environmental risks and legitimate community concerns over these." 

Dr Rob Jeffrey 

"The main use of 'fraccing' is stimulation of onshore oil and gas wells in North America.  As the better reservoirs are depleted, more stimulation will be required outside the US and Canada to produce from lower-permeability reservoirs.

"Some other applications can include measuring stress in the earth;  disposal of both waste water and drill cuttings by re-injection into deep formations; collecting spilled hydrocarbons back into a central borehole, pre-conditioning ore or rock to allow it to cave in more completely, and increasing flows from water wells. Volcanic dykes and sills are examples of natural hydraulic fracture. 

"Fracturing is being confused with drilling, which shows the level of understanding of some critics. Industry needs to maintain very high standards and government needs to be ahead of the crowd on regulation and enforcement.    

"Gas from coal seam methane wells and shale gas wells will be a useful way of reducing CO2 emissions in the short to intermediate term as modern gas-fired electric generation emits much less CO2 per kWh than coal-fired plants. 

"In the broader scheme of oil and gas exploration, much of the scrutiny is moving to drilling  and casing as issues raised about hydraulic fracturing have been shown to not be that severe. Of course, regulations and standards have to be in place and enforced by regulators."

Idealog has been covering the most interesting people, businesses and issues from the fields of innovation, design, technology and urban development for over 12 years. And we're asking for your support so we can keep telling those stories, inspire more entrepreneurs to start their own businesses and keep pushing New Zealand forward. Give over $5 a month and you will not only be supporting New Zealand innovation, but you’ll also receive a print subscription and a copy of the new book by David Downs and Dr. Michelle Dickinson, No. 8 Recharged (while stocks last).