Fracking in New Zealand – experts on the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s report

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, today released her report on hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

The PCE’s report covers the background, environmental risks, current oversight and future implications of the use of unconventional techniques in oil and gas production in New Zealand.

The Science Media Centre has gathered comment from scientists and independent experts who have seen the full report.

Listen back to a recording of Dr Jan Wright launching the report in Wellington today. (Click below)

PCE Fracking report launch – Scence Media Centre (NZ) from Science Media Centre NZ on Vimeo.

Source: PCE’s fracking report

Dr Rosemary Quinn, Head of Petroleum Geosciences at GNS Science comments:

“This is a timely and balanced report that sets out the concerns in New Zealand about possible environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing in the oil and gas industry. Dr Wright has put fracking into context as a possible part of the life cycle of planning, drilling, operating and abandoning a well. She concludes that she has not seen anything that is a high and urgent concern that would warrant calling for a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in New Zealand. The report rightly focusses on the need for effective regulation and enforcement in order to ensure the safe operation of hydraulic fracturing in New Zealand.”

On earthquake risk posed by fracking:

“Hydraulic fracturing causes micro-seismic activity as the cracks are formed and held open by the fluid and sand pumped down the well. These events typically have magnitudes in the range of -3.0 to 0.5 and are not felt at the surface.

“Rarely, hydraulic fracturing causes larger seismic events. Three instances have been investigated thoroughly and are referred to by the parliamentary Commisioner for the Environment in her report evaluating the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing in New Zealand. They are: Preese Hall, Lancashire, UK; Eola Field, Oklahoma, USA; and Horn River Basin, British Columbia, Canada. The largest magnitude of the seismic events recorded in these locations were 2.3, 2.8 and 3.8 respectively.

“The magnitude of the anomalous seismic events that have been linked to hydraulic fracturing are such that they would not stand out from the level of natural seismic activity that occurs annually in New Zealand.”

Prof Jenny Webster-Brown, Director of Waterways Centre for Freshwater Management, University of Canterbury & Lincoln University, comments:

“From a philosophical standpoint, I’m afraid I cannot see why we should risk the environmental effects of fracking, in order to extract every last drop of the non-renewable fossil fuel resource. It is a stop-gap measure at best, and one which we could well regret. Surely the money and ingenuity dedicated to the development of fracking technology would be better redirected into the development of alternative fuels?

“Having said that, and assuming that fracking will inevitably become a more common practice in New Zealand, I found [the PCE’s report] to be timely and balanced. As a water quality scientist, I do have concerns about the potential contamination of groundwater aquifers by fracking chemicals and deep oil field saline brines. Such contamination has been reported from countries where there has been a longer history of fracking, who have suffered the consequences of leaking well casings and blow outs. I strongly support the PCE’s call for effective regulation, requiring the industry to employ international standard best practice in well drilling and operation, and in fluid containment and management.

“I prefer to think that the lack of disclosure regarding fracking methods and chemicals, which has been such a significant source of concern overseas, should not be possible in New Zealand, as long as the existing Resource Management Act (RMA) resource consent process is followed.  For example, the Assessment of Environmental Effects (AEE) would require assessment of the potential toxicity and fate of fracking chemicals; this would be impossible to do without disclosing the nature of the chemicals. The PCE observes that national and regional regulators will need to develop, or have access to, appropriate expertise and resources to assess and minimise the potential environmental effects of fracking. I would support the requirement for a nationally-consistent regulatory approach to be in place before any consents for further fracking are granted.”

Dr Sally Gaw, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Chemistry, University of Canterbury, comments:

“The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment report’s high level conclusion is that the environmental risks associated with fracking can be managed effectively provided that operational best practices are implemented and enforced through regulation.

“Even if operational best practices are implemented, blow-outs, mechanical failure and human error have the potential to contaminate soil, surface waters and groundwater. The consequences of a contamination incident have been understated in the report, as there are limited to no options for remediating groundwater and soil once contamination has occurred. The installation of a fracking well can provide a connection between geological layers that were previously isolated. This means that if a well casing does not remain intact forever there is a potential pathway between the fracked layer and any overlying aquifer. The cumulative effects of several fracking wells located in one region were not considered. This is a scenario that is likely to become increasingly common if the industry scales up.

“As identified in the report, a major concern is the wastewater produced and the contaminants it contains. These contaminants may be from the fracking fluid itself or released from the surrounding rock by the fracking process. A recent review by CSIRO scientists on environmental issues associated with coal seam gas recovery in Australia concluded that ‘there is little understanding of the concentrations and especially the temporal variability of the potential contaminants that may be present in produced water.’ There is very limited publicly available data on the types of contaminants and their concentrations in fracking wastewaters produced in New Zealand making it difficult to fully assess the potential environmental risks and/or identify New Zealand specific risks.”

Dr. Marlène Villeneuve, Lecturer – Rock Mechanics, University of Canterbury comments:

“This report presents rock mechanics issues surrounding fracking with objectivity, clarity and balanced coverage. The Commissioner has provided a sound overview of the basic principles of creating hydraulic fractures in oil and gas reservoir rock and has identified ways in which this has the potential to affect the environment. This information is fundamental to a fact-based national discussion on the environmental impacts of fracking.

“The first interim finding clearly recognises the importance of understanding the geology, and emphasizes that the geology of potential new fields will be different from the geology in Taranaki. The second interim finding addresses the design and construction of wells, focussing only on well integrity. This finding is silent on the act of hydraulic fracturing itself, despite the discussion in Section 4.4 regarding the potential environmental impacts of fracking the well. Interim findings one and two must be explicitly linked so that wells are appropriately designed and constructed for each well site location. It is important to stress that in order for regulators and companies to be able to develop best practices the response of the reservoir rocks to fracking must be understood for each geological area where oil and gas extraction will be undertaken. This understanding will only be achieved through the close collaboration of the Government, industry and research organisations.”

Rosalind Archer, Associate Professor, Department of Engineering Science, University of Auckland, comments:

“The interim report from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has come to a conclusion that “environmental risks associated with fracking can be managed effectively” provided that operational best practices are followed. This stance is consistent with the United Kingdom Royal Society investigation. Phase two of the Parliamentary Commissioner’s investigation will address whether international best practice is being followed in New Zealand. I anticipate that fracturing operations currently being conducted in New Zealand will be shown to follow all relevant international standards for well siting, design and construction.

“It is important that oil and gas companies have a social licence to operate. Transparency has been shown to be very important. Todd Energy have fractured several wells in New Zealand and produced a comprehensive submission to the Parliamentary Commissioner’s Office that describes their approach to the fracturing process and summaries their fracturing operations to date in New Zealand. The public and the media are encouraged to access the document here.

Dr Julie Rowland, School of Environment, University of Auckland, comments:

“The interim report presents a fair and succinct summary of the challenges and opportunities arising from the use of fracking to extract oil and gas from NZ’s petroleum basins. The Commissioner rightly highlights the importance of appropriate government oversight and regulation to enforce operational best practise if environmental risks are to be managed effectively.

“Perhaps less well-articulated is the need for high-quality research to inform best practise in relation to three of the first four findings, which focus on well location, design and construction, and the storage and disposal of waste. In my view, an expansion of fracking in the NZ context must be accompanied by well-resourced research into the 3D geological context of the relevant petroleum basins, particularly on the Hikurangi Margin, and also the interplay between injection of fracking fluid and the generation and reactivation of fractures in the NZ context.”