Fracking – we need an independent investigation

By Peter Griffin 19/03/2012 29


The media has been having a field day on fracking lately.

Former TVNZ political editor Guyon Espiner, in his first piece for 60 Minutes, Meet the Frackers, did a fairly thorough treatment of the issue on TV3 last night, with 60 Minutes devoting half of their programme to it.

Chris Laidlaw on his Sunday programme on Radio New Zealand did a good job of canvassing the issues. Both programmes had extensive input from scientists and plenty of background on overseas cases where evidence suggest fracking activity can trigger small earthquakes and pollute water supplies if not carried out correctly.

The Weekend Press chipped in with Wake up to the dangers of fracking,a startling interview with former Cantabrian Bill Strudley who with his family had to leave their home in Colorado last year because they were “‘being poisoned’ by nearby gas-well drilling”.

Said Strudley, who is sueing Antero Resources Corporation, the company that drilled the wells near his former home:

“It was like living in a meth lab. We kept getting nosebleeds, severe skin rashes and welts, and had trouble breathing, among other symptoms.

The Taranaki Daily News also had an extensive feature in its weekend edition, Cracks show in fracks, looking at fracking activity in the Taranaki region and evidence of groundwater pollution that was previously flagged in a council report.

TVNZ’s Sunday programme ran a lengthy piece, A Fracking Mess, on fracking a couple of weeks back but did a disservice to viewers by simply running an Australian ABC-produced piece looking at fracking practices in the US, not even mentioning in the voiceover the New Zealand situation – which is quite different.

The TVNZ Sunday programme was dominated by the claims made in filmmaker Josh Fox’s documentary Gasland and included the infamous scene from that film where a man sets fire to the water flowing from his tap – because it contains so much methane.

sunday fracking

Gasland is controversial – the oil and gas industry lashed out at Fox claiming numerous inaccuracies and even writing to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when the film was nominated for an Oscar. Was Gasland error-ridden? An extensive examination of the claims made and the oil and gas industry’s debunking of Gasland suggests, as Time magazine’s Bryan Walsh put it:

To me, it looks like both Fox and the drilling industry have taken some liberty with the facts and relied on technicalities to push their points, but there seem to be no killer errors in the film, no knockout blow.

But as Walsh points out, a single documentary is not going to settle the issue, something that’s worth remembering as New Zealand filmmakers Tom and Barbara Sumner Burstyn embark on making Fracking Whatatutu, a documentary that will, according to the pair:

…examine the national and global implications of fracking via the microcosm of Whatatutu’s experience, challenging the claims of environmentalists and oil companies alike.

Whatatutu is a town 45 minutes from Gisborne with around 300 residents. It is in the area that Canadian oil company TAG Oil claims is ’literally leaking oil and gas’. TAG and its partner Apache intend to use fracking in the area to extract oil and gas. They have been issued exploration permits by the Government to do so.

The Burstyns are trying to crowdsource $150,000 in funding for their documentary via Pledgeme and have already raised over $11,000. Many will know Barbara Sumner Burstyn via her anti-vaccination rhetoric. She was an active campaigner against the MeNZB vaccination programme in partnership with anti-vaxxer Ron Law, a regular visitor to Sciblogs. Burstyn is entitled to her opinion, but her fracking documentary already shows signs of taking a similarly highly partisan line. In a recent exchange with her in the Kiwi Journalists Forum, she responded to me with:

…no hiding we have a bias. However our stance is ‘convince me’. To get the answers you have to ask the right questions.All our work shows we have a green bias. So pretending otherwise is silly. We all bring our subjective belief systems to everything we do. It’s how you manage it that counts.

Despite that, I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. But I’m not relying on Fracking Whatatutu to be the authoritative word on fracking in New Zealand. And as good as the pieces over the weekend were, they offered no definitive answers and in some cases produced more heat than light, which comes down to the media’s need to simplify an issue down to its bare essentials. As Sunday attempted to succinctly put it while at the same time drastically oversimplifying the issue:

Fracking is either a godsend or a threat to life as we know it.

The situation is that fracking seems to have been safely conducted in New Zealand since the practice was first used in the early 90s, but there are genuine concerns based on overseas examples where water has been tainted and tiny tremors created as a result of fracking. These concerns have been fuelled by recent scrutiny overseas of fracking which is extensively undertaken in the US and Canada and is on the increase as the oil and gas industry looks to extract resources from more difficult to reach places.

Time for some official scrutiny

The time would seem to be ripe for a robust and independent investigation into fracking.There is a hodgepodge of anecdotal accounts, randomly referenced studies, claims and counterclaims about fracking, doing the rounds in the media. There will be much more in the coming months. We need an independent view on this to cut through the confusion.

That’s also the view of New Plymouth mayor Harry Duynhoven. Despite the wealth oil and gas companies generate for his region, he told 60 Minutes that it was time for an independent inquiry. It is the only thing that is really going to give those communities in areas where fracking is used or is planned for, some certainty one way or other about the safety of it.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, is currently doing some “scoping work” around considering whether an independent commission looking at fracking should be set up. Given how influential her report on 1080 use was last year, her view on the issue will carry a lot of weight. In the meantime, Green MP Gareth Hughes has asked his fellow Local Government and Environment Select Committee members to look at fracking. He wants to look at overseas examples, the chemicals used in fracking, the potential for water pollution, the seismicity claims and an examination of the regulatory framework.

Select committee hearings would give everyone an opportunity to have their say in a transparent fashion. Its clear from the reports over the weekend that the oil and gas industry needs to divulge more information about the fracking process, its track record in New Zealand and the scale of activity planned for the future. The scientific evidence needs to be reviewed, with experts called to present to the select committee. The ideal scenario is a select committee inquiry in conjunction with the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment taking a look at the issue.


29 Responses to “Fracking – we need an independent investigation”

  • I agree Peter – both a PCE and Select Committee Inquiry would provide the best way forward. Getting some decent information on how different geology copes with the process would also be helpful – the East Coast situation is the polar opposite to Taranaki and Texas, so I’d be keen to see research from geology similar to ours before any decisions are made. The other issue is the urgency of the situation – we have applications expected from Apache Corp. in the next couple of weeks for two exploratory wells at Whatatutu and two near Porangahau – my preference would be for decision-makers to hold off on considering these until we have the independent reports back which could be a year or two away depending on how in-depth they go and whether local monitoring data is first required. Thanks for your thoughtful reflections on the media coverage particularly… primetime media certainly over-simplifies complex issues!

  • I’ve popped a brief heads-up to your article here on the PledgeMe page so that readers there might consider it.

    I seem to recall there being some “formal” examination of this issue overseas, but that might be limited to their geography – ?

    (Past sins and all, but I wasn’t impressed with Burstyn’s work on MenNZ either.)

  • Can someone here (perhaps an engineer/geologist/geophysicist) point me out to any scientific papers on the danger of fracking? I watched only part of the part of the 60 minutes last night so I might have missed the scientists that were interviewed in that program.

  • mmm, Peter… So you join the, “Let’s sledge anyone who disagrees with me” skeptics too? That’s a shade disappointing given your personal reassurances that sciblogs was objective.

    Apart from the fact that I resent you labelling me as an antivaxxer simply because I dare to challenge facet and fallacy masquerading as fact. The MeNZB case was unique.

    At the beginning of the campaign Sumner Burstyn & I objectively critiqued the MeNZB policy, science and publicity. Even Professor Diana Lennon agrees with us regarding the lack of evidence of effectiveness, but that aside, we asked the question in Jan/Feb 2005;

    1. Is the MeNZBâ„¢ vaccine necessary?
    · Cases of meningococcal disease caused by the strain of bacteria targeted by the MeNZB™ vaccine have declined by nearly 50 percent since peak levels in 2001.
    · Deaths due to meningococcal disease caused by the strain of bacteria targeted by the MeNZB™ vaccine have declined by nearly 75 percent since peak levels in 2001.
    · If it works, the MeNZB™ vaccine will prevent at most 1-2 deaths per year out of 700 deaths in under 20 year olds.
    · Most deaths are now caused by other strains of meningococcal bacteria for which licensed vaccines have been available for some time.

    The above was based solely on the science available at he time, and history has proved our conclusions/assumptions 100% correct.

    We claimed that even if the vaccine worked, only 1-2 lives would be saved each year, not the 18 or so claimed. Even the MOH proudly claimed that only 6 lives were saved between 2004 and 2008… 3-1/2 years during which 2,400 children under 20 died and an average of “1-2″ deaths prevented per year… exactly what we estimated “if the vaccine worked.’

    Sadly, there is no scientific evidence that it did work… even Medsafe reached that conclusion when it declined a permanent license for the vaccine.

    Your blog raises important questions and is timely. It’s just a shame that you taint it by making false claims and poking borax… it’s especially a shame given that you want sciblog to be objective.

    I fully agree, “The time would seem to be ripe for a robust and independent investigation into fracking.” Might I add to that the word, ‘objective.’

  • ‘verb8m’:

    I note that email address for Summer Burstyn in the document is verb8m@ihug.co.nz; would I be right in assuming that you are Summer Burstyn?

    I have seen this document before, as well as your earlier material. From what I read at the time I’m happy to express my judgement of your approach to covering that topic as I did earlier.

  • Ron, I’m surprised you’d take umbrage at me calling you an anti-vaxxer. You’ve posted enough on this forum and elsewhere to make pretty clear where you stand on vaccination, whether it be MeNZB, MMR, Gardasil etc.

    Anyway, I don’t want to relitigate MeNZB. I would urge Sumner to thoroughly consider the scientific evidence in researching and making Fracking Whatatutu. Hopefully that will involve scrutiny of an independent report into fracking in New Zealand by the PCE, the Local Government and Environmental Select Committee or maybe another body like the Royal Society. We need some discourse on the issue we can actually base some decisions on and that will involve an examination of the risks involved. Ultimately there is risk inherent in fracking. We need to decide as a society how much risk we are willing to live with (as we do when we get into our cars, drink alcohol or get our kids vaccinated).

  • Peter, so what is my stand on, “vaccination.” I’ve never expressed one as far as I know. I was primarily responsible for getting health care workers access to HBV vaccination, all our kids have been vaccinated, our grandchildren have been vaccinated (as far as I’m aware.) During all of my MeNZB work I never said anything against “vaccination” even when asked.

    As an objective analyst I do my homework before expressing a view… with few exceptions my opinions are evidence based. There is not a one-size fits all for anything… “You are either with us or you are with the terrorists” may have gone down well with Bush supporters, but it does not fit well with scientific methodology… at least not evidence based methodology.

    My posts on sciblog have nearly all been about skeptics using anecdote to discredit others using anecdote… how unscientific is that? Do you support such a mindset?

    Getting back to fracking, I fully agree with you that there should be an independent inquiry… but it won’t happen because there is too much at stake.

    That said, I thought there were two key moments in the 60 min programme I saw… 1 was seeing the water catch fire when a flame was put close to it… quite compelling evidence of gas the water supply I would have thought. If it wasn’t there before fracking but was after, I would have thought that was compelling anecdote to at least beg the question.

    The second, for me, was the lovely Auckland Uni claiming that there weren’t any significant earthquake recorded much over Richter 2 caused by fracking… when it was pointed out that there was one over 3 in Austrla she confessed she was aware of that when she said, “oh, but they closed that down…”

    Anyways, I look forward to the rush of objectivity from sci-skeptics who populated responses… no doubt their responses will be anecdote driven.

  • Ron, its ironic, you like many people who saw Gasland, picked up on the shot of the guy lighting the gas coming out of his tap. An anecdotal example like that is far more powerful than all the peer-reviewed research. But does it help us figure out whether the existing and proposed fracking in New Zealand is safe or at least comes with an acceptable level of risk? Nope. I’m glad you are willing to wait for the evidence to be scrutinized by an independent body…

  • Ron,

    I’ve no issue with you demonstrating to everyone that you are a simple troll, with cheap shots like you offer here, but as I’ve related before your persistent focus on me is unhealthy and I would like you to move on please.

  • I saw a scene on 60mins… what’s Gasland?

    You ask, But does it help us figure out whether the existing and proposed fracking in New Zealand is safe or at least comes with an acceptable level of risk? Nope.

    Totally agree… but it sure does beg the question… I would expect all skeptics on here to be asking for an independent review… even, given the longterm significance of this (good it they get it right/bad if they don’t), a Royal Commission of Inquiry…

    I also wonder whether now is a time for debate about the bigger picture stuff… given the climate change believers belonging to the skeptics society, perhaps they should also be begging the question… Do we need MORE petroleum if it’s just going to melt the ice-shelves faster and flood us out of existence as we know it? Should the Ports of Auckland be buying land further from the coast so that they can still operate when all of the fuel from the fractured rock is burnt as fuel? Should we be investing in tidal electricity rather than risking earthquakes?

    On an even more short-term basis, should we be asking, What if the Insurance companies declared that they would not be covering any damage resulting from earthquakes caused by fracking…? Has the government thought of the economic impact of that?

    Just asking…

  • Grant… You bagged Sumner… not me! Focus on issues and evidence rather persons and anecdote and maybe people like me won’t challenge you… besides, you called me a ‘simple troll.’ I protest strongly… I’m not a troll!

    You said, “I seem to recall there being some “formal” examination of this issue overseas, but that might be limited to their geography – ?” This demonstrates that you have confessed to having no clue on this topic either…

  • Ron, the scene of the guy lighting gas coming out of his tap is a scene from Gasland, the documentary that has generated a lot of the debate around fracking in the US. The clip gets replayed by the mainstream media all the time because it is so dramatic.

    Your questions are all good ones, but there appears to be little appetite to tackle them at this point in time. Maybe the process kicked off in Durban will lead to some action on climate change, but I’m not overly hopeful. The change is too intangible, too gradual to spark the same type of reaction as something like fracking, which is literally happening in our neighbourhood.

    But it and the bigger climate issue are intertwined in the minds of many which makes it more than an issue of safety but a philosophical one of whether we should be expoliting these resources at all.

    I say, lets figure out the safety issues on fracking first before tackling the much bigger issue of where our energy comes from and how we plan to move to cleaner energy sources longterm.

  • I agree Peter – the real issue is shifting our hearts and minds on climate change and the pain/cost is not felt enough by the majority of Kiwis to make that shift easily.

  • Peter, good, we have common ground.

    Now a challenge to you… Put out a press statement under the Science Media Centre banner…

    Time for some official scrutiny

    The time would seem to be ripe for a robust and independent investigation into fracking.There is a hodgepodge of anecdotal accounts, randomly referenced studies, claims and counterclaims about fracking, doing the rounds in the media. There will be much more in the coming months. We need an independent view on this to cut through the confusion.n
    I suspect the Burstyn’s would be fully supportive and who knows, they mightn’t then field the need to make a doco to encourage the very public debate you are advocating…

    Big Ups to you in anticipation of your press release.

    I suspect you job would be up for review before lunchtime…

  • Ron, that’s my personal view – read the disclaimer on my blog.

    The SMC isn’t there to lobby for action. We make it easier for journalists to get access to good evidence-based info when science is making headlines.

    However, if scientists were to, say write to the Herald calling for action on the issue, or author a paper in the New Zealand Medical Journal suggesting a review of fracking is necessary, we’d certainly look at it, as we have done in the past when scientists collectively advocate action based on the evidence.

    In my mind, fracking is a bit like 1080 use – low risk but highly unpopular with the public for a number of reasons. We only really turned a corner on the public debate around 1080 use after the PCE’s report on the issue last year, which was evidence-based. A robust, independent report into fracking has the potential to clear up the issue in a similar way, one way or other.

    Fracking is as big an issue as 1080 use has ever been if you gauge it by media coverage, so you’d think it would warrant the scrutiny. But that’s just my opinion.

  • Ron,

    “Focus on issues and evidence rather persons”

    I made no reference to you yet you made a cheap shot at me. Like ‘anti-vax’, the label ‘troll’ comes from your actions. Either way your constant focus on harassing me personally is unhealthy: please move on.

  • Grant, Sumner was a co-author in the Meningooccal Gold Rush series. We spent hundreds of hours researching the evidence including thousands of pages of documents retrieved under the OIA, conferences papers, published papers, etc, etc. We agreed on every word we published and often got others to check facts if we didn’t have them in hand. We followed leads up, applied first principles in checking references and references of references back to source. Where stories emerged in the media we checked with primary source… including the mother of a child denied treatment because doctors thought [wrongly] the child was protected by the vaccine… how much research into MeNZB did you do Grant???? On the Meningococcal Gold Rush analyses, you dick her… you dick me…! hence I have every reason to respond to your insulting and ill-informed comment, “(Past sins and all, but I wasn’t impressed with Burstyn’s work on MenNZ either.)”

    I suspect you need to deal with your past sins… either that or stick to what you know and move on.

  • Peter – “New Zealand Medical Journal”?… absolutely given the claimed public health issues… You are well informed and spot on…

  • well, the main worry as far as health is concerned is the impact of the fracking chemicals used, so if there was a major potential health impact, I could see scientists flagging that aspect in a medical journal, the same way public health researhers have tried to highlight the health impacts of climate change…

  • Guys, can we leave MeNZB and vaccination behind and focus on fracking on this thread? Thanks.

  • For those lurkers, and others, wanting to understand what Peter is referring to, that other great modern font of all knowledge [Wikipedia] gives a good starting point… but as always, keep an open mind and think for yourself. And Grant, if you see anything here that raises flags, then maybe, just maybe, we could have a deep and meaningful and rational discussion…

    Water is by far the largest component of fracking fluids. The initial drilling operation itself may consume from 65,000 gallons to 600,000 gallons of fracking fluids. Over its lifetime an average well will require up to an additional 5 million gallons of water for the initial fracking operation and possible restimulation frac jobs.[51] The large volumes of water required have raised concerns about fracking in arid areas, such as Karoo in South Africa.[52]

    Chemical additives used in fracturing fluids typically make up less than 2% by weight of the total fluid.[53] Over the life of a typical well, this may amount to 100,000 gallons of chemical additives. These additives (listed in a U.S. House of Representatives Report[54]) include biocides, surfactants, viscosity-modifiers, and emulsifiers. They vary widely in toxicity: Many are used in household products such as cosmetics, lotions, soaps, detergents, furniture polishes, floor waxes, and paints,[55] and some are used in food products. Some, however, are known carcinogens, some are toxic, and some are neurotoxins. For example: benzene (causes cancer, bone marrow failure), lead (damages the nervous system and causes brain disorders), ethylene glycol (antifreeze, causes death), methanol (highly toxic), boric acid (kidney damage, death), 2-butoxyethanol (causes hemolysis). Gamma-emitting isotopes (radioactive; can cause cancer) are also included in the fluid as tracers. Some of the isotopes used are Antimony-121, Antimony-122, Antimony-123, Antimony-124, Antimony-125, Antimony-126, Antimony-127, Chromium-51, Cobalt-57, Cobalt-58, Cobalt-60, Gold-198, Iodine-127, Iodine-128, Iodine-129, Iodine-130, Iodine-131, Iridium-192, Iron-59, Krypton-85, Lanthanum-140, Potassium-39 (activated to Potassium-40), Potassium-41 (activated to Potassium-42), Potassium-43, Rubidium-86, Scandium-45, Scandium-46, Scandium-47, Scandium-48, Silver-110, Strontium-85, Xenon-133, Zinc-65, and Zirconium-95. Several are typically combined and injected together.[47][48][49] Their half lifes range from 40.2 hours (Lanthanum-140) to 5.27 years (Cobalt-60).[56]

    Despite concerns about the generally elevated radiation levels found near hydraulic fracturing sites and high levels of iodine-131 (a radioactive tracer used in hydraulic fracturing) found in drinking water and milk, [57][58][59] iodine-131 is not listed among the chemicals to be monitored in the United States Environmental Protection Agency Hydraulic Fracturing Draft Study Plan. Other known radioactive tracers used in hydraulic fracturing [47][48][49] but not listed as chemicals to be studied include radioactive isotopes of gold, xenon, rubidium, iridium, scandium, and krypton.[5]. Recently the EPA has not been very forthcoming regarding public disclosure of environmental contamination by the oil and gas industry.[25][60]

    The 2011 US House of Representatives investigative report on the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing shows that of the 750 compounds in hydraulic fracturing products “[m]ore than 650 of these products contained chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or listed as hazardous air pollutants” (12). The report also shows that between 2005 and 2009 279 products (93.6 million gallons-not including water) had at least one component listed as “proprietary” or “trade secret” on their Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) required Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydraulic_fracturing#Chemicals

  • Peter, I don’t have a problem with that at all… as I mentioned at the beginning, it would have been most constructive if you hadn’t raised it in the first place… it was a very cheep and factually inaccurate shot.

  • Ron: Why persist trying to bait, etc? It’s not an excuse to hassle me at every opportunity. I’m not interested in the MenNZ subject itself here and I believe Peter indicated the same.

    Peter: Ah, yes, I’m with you now! :-)

  • Guys, can we leave MeNZB and vaccination behind and focus on fracking on this thread? Thanks.

    Sure – just to be clear, I wrote the comment above before your comment appeared, i.e. I had no interest in the MenNZ topic, that’s Ron’s interest.

  • If you had no interest in it then why muck-rake… You only have yourself to blame… MeNZB was not my topic at all… The only reason I joined this thread was because someone pointed out you and Peter had bagged Sumner and myself… I’m surprised you, as a skeptic, are now crying that you are the victimised… why am I not surprised… stick to what you are qualified to comment on.

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