Alarmist – n: a person given to spreading needless alarm; – adj: spreading needless alarm.
Alarmed – n: frightened expectation of danger or difficulty: -v.tr – aroused to a sense of danger. (Concise Oxford Dictionary)
While there may well be a hard core of alarmists muscling in on the fracking debate, we haven’t met one yet. But there are a rapidly growing number of citizens – more than 2000 signed a recent petition – who are certainly alarmed.
Until quite recently there was no common knowledge that the Ministry of Economic Development (MED) on behalf of Government, had allocated permits for oil exploration across 1.7 million hectares of Hawke’s Bay and East Coast, or that TAG/Apache would be drilling an exploratory well in Porangahau using the relatively new technology of horizontal hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, right about now.
As news of wholesale exploration permit allocations across NZ emerged, so did that much feted – or slated (depending on your point of view) documentary Gas Land appear, striking fear into the hearts and minds of many. This documentary follows the aggressive pursuit of oil and gas across North America by multi-billion dollar oil corporates – largely unregulated and seemingly unstoppable – leaving a devastating legacy of environmental destruction, water and air pollution, and severe effects on human health. It is sobering viewing and the many hundreds of local people who have now seen that documentary want assurances that such a situation could never happen in Hawke’s Bay. Not unreasonable.
So who can provide such assurances? The Government?
MED’s role is to allocate permits. The job of managing them is that of local or territorial authorities under the Resource Management Act 1991. Here, that is the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council (HBRC).
It seems incomprehensible that central government, now touting oil and gas sales as the new economic saviour, has no cohesive strategy for managing what they are hoping will become a major economic industry, little known outside Taranaki. There is no direction or framework to guide consenting authorities in their approach; no integrated regulatory framework; a woefully pitiable pool of expertise to manage and monitor the industry. Just the Resource Management Act (RMA) with each Council applying its own rules and policies under its Regional Resource Management Plans (RRMP).
The debate around environmental impacts, short and longer term, has gone viral; the great divide between ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ has grown wider and deeper – with claims, counter-claims, accusations of ignorance on the one side or spin-doctoring on the other.
Time to pause
A pause in proceedings and some critical thinking is sorely needed.
While the onus is on central government to address the calls for caution around the implications of wholesale oil and gas exploration and production in this region, the immediate focus is on HBRC, who must manage the pending consent application from TAG/Apache for an exploratory well in Porangahau.
Not a biggie, you might think. Does it set a precedent? Is it a Trojan Horse? In verbal discussion HBRC chief executive Andrew Newman, says “absolutely not”. In a later written paper, it appears as: “if an industry was to develop in the future … the tests and assessment process may (underlined) become broader as a larger number of bores were considered”. Not so reassuring!
Mr Newman states that, while the RRMP is silent on hydraulic fracturing specifically, there are “sufficient rules to cover consent applications for bores that are used for petrochemical exploration and associated activities”. So is it a matter of finding the right boxes to tick? Will this be enough to reassure those concerned that exploration and production of oil and gas across our region could never get out of hand?
The Council’s stance is clear: “It is not the role of the Regional Council to have a view for or against oil exploration in Hawke’s Bay. Rather, it is the council’s role to gather the information it needs to make an informed decision on any resource consent application it may receive in the future”
A sensible approach. The big question is ‘where do you gather the information?’
There is virtually no resident expertise on oil and gas exploration in New Zealand outside the industry itself (which has a vested interest in progressing exploration), and the Taranaki Regional Council (TRC). Apart from RMA consents for water take and disposal, TRC does not have extensive experience in processing consent applications for fracking. Only in August of last year, following legal advice, did it declare a requirement for consent applications for these activities!
Council staff are working with industry players to gain a better understanding of exploratory operations and in February, at the invitation of Apache Corporation, HBRC co-funded a fact finding tour for a staff member to visit British Colombia. This was an internal “knowledge building” exercise, and the public was not privy to a full report. However, a two-page summary noted that Canadian authorities “…confirm that hydraulic fracturing opponents do not represent the facts of the issues presented to provide a balanced view.”
Getting a balanced view
It seems a “balanced view” is pretty hard to come by! Petitioners calling on HBRC to make fracking a prohibited activity until an independent enquiry by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) could investigate, found such a move would require a change in the RRMP – a process that currently takes around eight years.
However, Councillors did unanimously support Cr Remmerswaal’s motion to request such an investigation. In recent weeks PCE, Dr Jan Wright, has determined there is a “substantive case under the Environment Act” and has announced an official investigation. She expects to be reporting to Parliament by the end of the year.
Good news, right? Maybe. It will provide the long awaited independent investigation, but it has no bearing on the consent process in the meantime. Her findings and recommendations may or may not influence government thinking, but we will get a “balanced view”.
So how does the public gain confidence that of course there’s no conspiracy! That Hawke’s Bay will not become another Gas Land – (or indeed another Tasmania or NSW, where current oil and gas expansion is devastating landowners)?
The most obvious way of ensuring transparency and confidence in this process is for the TAG/Apache consent application to be publicly notified. This provides for the full application to be made public and the opportunity for questions or concerns to be addressed through submissions.
The RMA specifies the grounds for public notification. Section 95A requires notification “where it decides … that the activity will have or is likely to have adverse effects on the environment that are more than minor”. The whole argument of concern is that we simply do not know if effects will be more than minor. Maybe The PCE’s parliamentary report might tell us?
“Special circumstances” is another ground for public notification. Could the Regional Council consider fracking, a new activity for this region for which there is no reference in the RRMP, as a “special circumstance”? Not easily, apparently. The RMA is a minefield and open to legal challenges. Over the past year a number of consent decisions have been overturned by the Court of Appeal, at a cost to rate payers. So there is a need for diligence. While significant public concern is not in itself sufficient reason, what provisions could make the TAG/Apache consent publicly notifiable?
The applicant themselves can ask for an application to be publicly notified. Alex Ferguson heads the Apache operation in New Zealand and has made a commitment, both in writing (TAG/Apache Information Pack, October 2011) and verbally at a full Council meeting (January 2012), to being transparent and “building solid relationships with local communities”.
In the spirit of that commitment, Mr Ferguson was asked if Apache would consider requesting public notification of their application to drill at Porangahau. At the time of this writing, no response had been received.
Right now TAG/Apache could be drilling their first exploratory well near the tiny coastal settlement of Porangahau. At the time of writing, an application for Resource Consent had not been lodged, but is imminent. If approved, the people of Porangahau can expect to see and hear drilling 24 hours a day over 21 days; at least one, possibly two, hydraulic ‘fracks’; around 400 heavy duty transport trucks in and out over 33 days; plus the steady work flow of traffic into and around the site over that time. This is just one small exploratory drill way down in Central Hawke’s Bay. Does it matter?
MPs Craig Foss and Chris Tremain support oil and gas exploration in Hawke’s Bay as a new industry. Both have stated “but not at any cost”. So what cost would be OK? What cost would not be OK? Who determines the cost? At what point could it be deemed too high? Who will make that call? Will it be us, or will it be our grandchildren?
Economist Brian Easton notes (Listener Mar 31–April 6) “We are world experts at shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted”. He cites Pike River, leaky buildings, the finance sector … and Dr Jan Wright adds water quality to that list. If, by foregoing a six months pause until Dr Wright’s investigation is completed, we find the oily horse has bolted, we might not be able to shut the gate!
Here is a reminder:
“Since its inception in 1954, Apache has been driven by a relentless pursuit of opportunity to profitably grow an independent oil and gas company for the long term benefits of our shareholders.”
Chairman of the Board & Chief Executive.
New Zealand is definitely part of the “relentless search”, but not as a shareholder!
Pauline Elliot is a spokesperson for lobby group Don’t Frack the Bay