Government issues fracking guidelines ahead of parliamentary watchdog’s report
The government has issued what it says are best practice guidelines for undertaking hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, including how to undertake so-called "land farming" and warning that fracking fluids can migrate into drinking water and need to be controlled.
Environment Minister Amy Adams issued the guidelines today, ahead of the expected release around Easter of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment's final report on fracking.
The PCE's preliminary report in late 2012 found fracking was probably safe as long as it was well-regulated, but that more study was required before issuing a final position. The PCE, Jan Wright, has also raised broader concerns that the growing use of fracking will contribute to global climate change.
Her final report was due last year, but has been delayed while further evidence is assessed.
The guidelines published today make clear that "applications for water and discharge activities for these activities will need to specifically address whether registered drinking water sources are located downstream, to what extent the activities will affect these supplies, and ways to ensure effects are avoided, remedied or mitigated."
The guidelines note also that it's possible that "the migration of fracturing fluid through pathways could affect water supplies upstream of the discharge point, depending on the nature of the underlying geology."
While this situation did not trigger the 2008 National Environment Standard for Sources of Human Drinking Water on its own, "the risk of this occurring needs to be assessed in an application for hydraulic fracturing, as it may produce adverse effects on upstream water quality."
The guidelines also cover land farming, the practice of spreading drilling waste onto land to "allow for natural bio-remediation as various soil processes transform and assimilate the waste."
The practice has become controversial since discovery of low compliance with land farming regulations on at least one Taranaki land farm, where cattle were found grazing on pasture where drilling waste had not been fully treated.
The guidelines also make clear that flow-back fluids from the fracking process should not be spread on agricultural land.
"The disposal of return fluid from hydraulic fracturing operations (including formation fluid) using land-based disposal is not endorsed by these guidelines," the document, published on the Ministry for the Environment website. "Disposal of return fluids is considered better suited to deep well injection or disposal at an industrial waste facility."
Land farming was best suited to light, sandy soils in windswept areas, because of its capacity to reduce erosion.
"The environmental risks of onshore petroleum development, including hydraulic fracturing can be effectively managed if best practice is followed," said Adams in a statement. "These guidelines provide clear direction so that hydraulic fracturing is carried out in a robust, controlled and well regulated manner."
The guidelines come as local government agencies in areas unfamiliar with the oil and gas industry, such as Hawke's Bay and Gisborne, begin to see onshore oil and gas exploration.
"The guidelines clarify the responsibilities of councils from initial investigation and planning to consenting, and will support councils so that the environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing are managed appropriately across the country," said Adams.