'No red flag' on fracking, says watchdog

Commissioner makes it clear the evidence does not back up some of the more emotive claims.

Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright has all but ruled out a moratorium on fracking.

In releasing her interim report on fracking today, Dr Wright outlined four “golden rules” for fracking and indicated cautious approval for the practice.

“Also known as hydraulic fracturing, the process uses water sand and chemicals to extract otherwise difficult to dislodge gas and oil from shale rock and sandstone.

It is a focus of much protest and emotive claim and counterclaim and Dr Wright, in her briefing before her report was tabled in Parliament this afternoon, made it clear the evidence does not back up some of the more emotive claims.

There is no evidence fracking is an earthquake risk, her report says, although it also advises it would be prudent not to use the practice on or near active faultlines until more is known.

“I have not yet seen anything that is a big red flag, but I don’t know yet how thorough the monitoring is that has been done,” she told a media briefing.

“The risks are low if everything is done with best practice.”

Specific rules

The next report will focus far more explicitly on what specific rules will be required to ensure best practice from firms using fracking.

So far in New Zealand firms trialing the practice include Todd Energy, Solid Energy and L&M Energy.

The report stresses four areas of regulation: as noted above, the first is to keep away from active faults.

“The second thing is ‘well integrity’ – casing the well thoroughly, getting the cement right and strongly bonding the well to surrounding rock, making sure it is able to withstand ground movements, which as you know we have a lot of in New Zealand.”

The third aspect is limiting any spills and leaks on the surface – “easy to do in theory but there is always human error”.

The fourth is disposal of waste from the fracking process.

These four will be the main thrust of the final report next year.

Much of the publicity around fracking has been over-emotive, she says, and adds that her own previous comments have been misinterpreted by opponents of the practice.

Qualified endorsement

Her comments earlier this year on a qualified endorsement from the Royal Society on fracking should not be seen as an endorsement and neither is today’s report.

“I did not give the big tick to fracking then and that is certainly not what I am doing here today.”

But her interim conclusion is that fracking “can be managed provided best practice is actually being implemented and enforced through regulation”.

A moratorium – as opponents in the Green Party and in the environmental movement have called for – is not needed, she says.

“Calling for a moratorium is a very big step. I find it a little hard to see the need to undertake a moratorium on the industry at this point – to be fair you would have to look at conventional [mineral extraction] as well.”

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