Earlier this year, New Zealand’s Canterbury region was shaken to its core by a devastating earthquake that literally ripped the community apart. Today, as people there continue cleaning up, many feel like they are once again under siege. The new threat: hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) for natural gas and shale oil, a procedure that has been linked to increased seismic activity.
Because oil and gas reserves are owned by the Crown, all New Zealanders should benefit from its development. But many people are worried about increased off-shore oil drilling and natural gas and shale oil exploration, and wonder how more fossil fuel extraction will impact the environment. The Green Party has called for a moratorium on natural gas fracking, and the party’s success in the recent general election reflects public support for that position.
Fracking is not new to New Zealand. The Taranaki Basin has the country’s most developed petroleum reserves, and since 2003 around 30 wells have been fracked here. That’s a drop in the bucket by international standards. But if the industry has its way, those 30 wells will be just the beginning. TAG Oil believes the rest of New Zealand is severely under-explored and is “one of the few remaining high potential untapped oil and gas frontiers in the world.” It says the country’s oil-rich fractured shale source-rock formations are a “widespread exploration target with major unconventional oil and gas potential.”
Bernie Napp, a senior policy analyst at the natural resource lobby organization Straterra and a vocal fracking supporter, says in New Zealand this practice is used to extract coal seam gas and occasionally natural gas onshore or nearshore. Fracking in New Zealand is mainly done more than 3,000 meters below the surface, and the industry is quick to point out that without fracking some current hydrocarbon production would not be viable.
Fracking seems to have snuck very quietly into New Zealand. While the industry is busy preparing for what it hopes will be a boom decade, many citizens are getting worried. The industry insists the practice is safe. Yet there are no regulations to specifically govern fracking, and there is also a lack of independent research into impacts on the country’s environment. Fracking opponents are calling for an independent investigation.
There are some big issues getting people nervous. The foremost concern is that fracking fluids could leak into aquifers and contaminate. In response to, the Taranaki Regional Council recently investigated fracking impacts. A chief investigator publicly drank water from one of the most contentious industrial sites to rebuff water quality concerns. In a joint statement the industry suggested opponents need to get real: "Fracking is not done within or anywhere near the water table," Straterra said in a statement. However, the Waikato community, where fracking was used as shallow as only a few hundred metres, begs to differ.
Secondly, there are concerns about fracking fluid themsvles. The Petroleum Exploration and Production Association of New Zealand has denied that the frack fluids contain the so-called
BTEX group – the highly carcinogenic chemicals benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. Straterra’s Napp says the chemicals used in New Zealand’s fracking fluid are “non-toxic to humans.” But that surely doesn’t mean people want the chemicals in their water supplies.
And last, but most certainly not least, is a worry about earthquakes. In New Zealand the industry is forging ahead in some of the country’s most earthquake-prone areas. Canterbury University recently hosted a fracking Q&A session during which Michael Hasting, an energy industry geophysicist said “there is no doubt that fracking does cause earthquakes.” He stressed that the quakes are generally small, although the practice can trigger larger quakes. No doubt this type of comment makes locals more anxious. “Fracking is banned in France and halted in parts of United States, Canada, Australia and South Africa,” says Reuben Hunt, a frustrated local Canterbury resident. “So why are we even considering this option when we don’t have the same population or energy pressures?”
Hunt believes that fracking has every potential to spark more earthquakes. In a community that’s still shaken, fracking is something he would be much happier without.