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.