THE hysteria sweeping the country over fracking is like a modern-day version of the Chicken Licken story. It is not the sky falling in but a fear of what is happening underground that has seen groups like Frack-Free Tairawhiti form. Some councils have also jumped on the Green’s “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, it was used in the construction of the Clyde Dam. Fracking is used to develop geothermal energy fields and enhance oil and gas recovery in the petroleum industry.
The technique is used where the rock, sand, silt or clay is so tight that it is difficult for fluids to flow. Fracking involves water being pumped at high pressure down a well to open up gaps so it is easier to extract the water, steam, gas or oil. The efficiency of fracking is improved by adding small amounts of proppants and lubricants to the water. The proppants are little beads that get into the gaps and keep them open when the pressure is released.
The first environmental risk cited by opponents is that fracking can trigger small earthquakes. This is true for all sorts of engineering works. A magnitude 4 quake was triggered by filling Lake Pukaki in the 1960s. Lots of small earthquakes are triggered by constructing pile foundations for buildings, bridges and wharves.
The few small earthquakes that could be caused by fracking need to be considered in the context of 18,000 naturally-occurring quakes over magnitude 2.5 across the country per year. New Zealanders have more to fear from the vibration of their mobile phone than that caused by fracking.
The second concern is pollution of waterways and aquifers. These risks are also low. The proppants used are just fillers and the toxicity of the lubricants is similar to dish washing liquid.
Authorities like the Taranaki Regional Council, the US Environmental Protection Authority, the Royal Society and the UK Society of Engineers have all concluded, after extensive studies and reports, that the effects of fracking are quite manageable.
The real risk for New Zealand in the fracking debate is a knee-jerk political reaction that halts the development of industries offering significant benefits.
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.
Fracking technologies are underpinning an energy revolution in the United States, enabling gas to replace coal-fired electricity generation. Gas emits one-third of the greenhouse gas emissions compared to coal.
This gas revolution is relevant here. Our economy has hugely benefited from Maui gas over the past three decades, but this field is coming to an end. If we do not find new natural gas resources in the next decade, energy prices will rise and we will inevitably burn more coal. New Zealand must be open to responsibly using fracking to access our unconventional gas resources.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment 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 a nation with a great lifestyle, a strong economy and a clean environment. That will only be possible if we take a rational, science-based approach to our natural resources and risk management.
Fracking is the least of New Zealand’s environmental worries.
• Dr Smith is the Nelson MP and a former Conservation and Environment Minister. He has a PhD in geotechnical engineering from the University of Canterbury.