Fracking has happened in New Zealand without specific consent
"Prior to July 2011, the Taranaki Regional Council (TRC) did not require resource consent for the more than 50 fracks that were performed. The legality of this was questioned. After receiving legal advice, Taranaki Regional Council now requires resource consent for fracking" (PCE report, p. 58).
As documents obtained by the Green Party under the Official Information Act show, the result of TRC not requiring consent is that they didn't know the names and volumes of fracking chemicals that were used until 2011. In 2011, TRC sought to get the historical information from fracking companies, but the Council didn't receive information for all fracking incidents. The Council still doesn't know what chemicals were used for fracking at seven wells and don't know the volumes used at a further 40 wells. The Council cannot monitor for the environmental effects of specific fracking chemicals if they don't know what they are.
Lack of scrutiny of fracking chemicals
"The use of chemicals may be considered in the resource consent process. It is largely up to councils to consider the environmental risks of using particular chemicals in fracking fluid. It is not clear whether councils are relying on generic HSNO approvals rather than assessing the environmental risk of the chemicals used at each particular site" (PCE report, p. 58).
It is cause for concern if the councils are relying on generic Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO) approval. As of April 2012, the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) had not processed a single application for a substance where fracking was mentioned as a possible use. Alarmingly, companies self-assess and self-approve the chemicals to be used in fracking, despite the fact that many are known carcinogens.
"Between 2001-2005, diesel was used as the base of the fracking fluid in 17 fracks in Taranaki. Diesel contains benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes (BTEX) - volatile compounds that are well-known contaminants of soil and groundwater near oil and gas production sites and petrol stations" (PCE report, p. 40).
Air pollution from poor fracking practice
Taranaki Regional Council has allowed the regular use of flare pits in Taranaki, despite flare stacks being best practice. Alex Furgeson, CEO of Apache in New Zealand reportedly called the use of flare pits 'abhorrent' and said Apache would not use flare pits on the East Coast. Flaring is used to burn off returned well fluids including fracking fluids.
Despite flaring being employed in fracking operations in Taranaki, it took until June 2012 for the Regional Council to investigate the air quality effects of flaring fracking fluid. Even then, the investigation they commissioned only conducted a single simulation (rather than a flare from a well in production) of flaring fracturing fluids, and samples of emissions were taken only for four hours on two different days. The report clearly states, "it should be noted that all results relate to a field study carried out under specific source, topographic, and meteorological conditions. Therefore they cannot and must not be applied universally". Yet Council is now using this report to allow flaring.
The Council shouldn't dismiss concerns around fracking's effects on air quality. A study conducted by the Colorado School of Public Health shows that the cumulative cancer risks were nearly double for residents living within 800m of a fracking well compared to residents who lived further away than 800 metres
Poor wastewater disposal practice
Wastewater has been disposed of in risky ways in New Zealand.
"Wastewater can be temporarily stored in pits or in tanks. In the past, it was often stored in unlined clay pits - sometimes leading to contamination of soil and shallow groundwater" (PCE report, p. 47).
"The disposal of waste by 'landfarming or other methods could also contaminate soil, water or air, if harmful substances are not first removed" (PCE report p. 50).
Prior to May 2011 fracking fluid wastewater was spread on to land in Taranaki without specific resource consent (PCE report, p. 60).
To explain, "Landfarming involves removing the top soil, spreading the waste over the land, and mixing the waste into the top soil. Over time microorganisms in the soil break down hydrocarbons in the wastes. However, the waste may contain substances including heavy metals that do not break down. Liquid waste including fracking fluid may also be landfarmed" (PCE report, p. 47).
In Southland fracking fluids that have returned to the surface of the well were disposed of in the local stream.
Shallow fracking is more likely to cause water contamination and has been conducted in New Zealand.
The PCE report says, "Contaminants could travel along natural pathways or the cracks created by fracking and into aqufers if they are nearby. This is the least likely cause of contamination although the risk is increased when fracking occurs in naturally fractured areas, close to aquifers, or where there is no cap rock" (emphasis added, PCE report, p. 50).
"In tight sands and shale, the distance between where the fracking occurs and aquifers is typically large - anywhere between a thousand to several thousand metres. However, the Manutahi-A1 and B1 wells in Taranaki were fracked only 260 metres below the overlying aquifer" (PCE report p. 43).
Also, the twelve fracking incidents in the Waikato were only at depths of about 400 metres (PCE report p. 118).
Further regulatory gaps identified by the PCE
"Some potential [regulatory] gaps have been identified. These include questions around who takes responsibility for assessing site-specific risks to the environment from fracking fluid, examining well integrity for environmental risks, and monitoring abandoned wells" (PCE report, p. 63).
"It is clear that the integrity of casing of a well is of great importance…" (PCE report, p. 11) yet, "there is no standard number of well casings in New Zealand" (PCE report, p. 36). Furthermore the report says, "It is not clear who is responsible for ensuring well integrity - the High Hazards Unit or the regional councils," (PCE report, p. 76).
"The risk of environmental damage depends on where a well is drilled - on the geology and hydrogeology. Once granted permits which sometimes cover very large areas, companies appear to decide where to drill with no guidance from either central or local government about where drilling might best take place. Companies drilling wells are also using different design and construction standards" (PCE report, p. 76).
"The United Kingdom has a well examination scheme, New Zealand has no such scheme," (PCE report, p. 76).
"The current approach involves a high degree of reliance on a company being motivated to 'do the right thing' by consumers, by workers, and by the environment. While this has worked well in some circumstances, there are problems with this approach in high risk industries" (PCE report, p. 77).