By: Hannah Cook
Produced & edited by Kaylyn Hlavaty
Michael Self has been concerned about the health effects of hydraulic fracturing ever since his mother unexpectedly died of a brain tumor a few years ago. His mother’s illness was one of many curious health problems plaguing the community surrounding the Kapuni oil field, one of the largest and oldest, owned by Shell, BP and Todd Energy.
“Suddenly, everyone started dying,” said Self. “I promised [at my mother’s] funeral that I’d raise the issue.”
Travel about 25 kilometers north and you’ll find Sarah Roberts facing similar disturbances. The schoolteacher owns farmland in Stratford that has fallen into the hands of Tag Oil, a Canadian company who has taken New Zealand on as a new client, so to speak. She looks out her window with disdain as she watches a frightening metal monster spitting out smoke and fire in the distance, its subtle fury ill-fit for the beautiful rolling hills New Zealand is so known for. She calls it an “abuse of our land.”
Protestors in Cape Town, photo courtesy of Getty Images.
Hydraulic fracturing isn’t necessarily recent to New Zealand, having been used mildly over the last 20 years. In fact, it’s not new to any part of the world. The process, slanged “fracking,” occurs when a well is drilled through first vertically, then horizontally for thousands of feet. A mixture of water, sand, and hundreds of chemicals is shot through the well, causing little fractures underground that release loads of natural gases. It has become one of the oil companies’ favorite extraction activities, as they relish in the profits.
But to people like Self and Roberts, fracking just isn’t worth it.
First and foremost, opponents to fracking worry about the quality of water, especially in a country like New Zealand, whose economy depends largely on agriculture and dairy production. Historically speaking, there have been incidents of fracking contaminating water supplies. For instance, the water waste extracted after the natural gases are captured is essentially dumped into a pit, usually lined, but sometimes not. That water, ridden with carcinogens, can seep into the waterways of surrounding houses, making their tap water unfit for human consumption.
Gareth Hughes, a spokesperson of The Green Party of New Zealand’s Parliament, has seen such practices and outcomes happen in New Zealand.
“What we know is we’ve had toxic chemicals that they’ve just dumped down the streams,” he says. Roberts also commented on fracking’s affect on water supply, saying, “I can see a place where I would have to say we could run out of clean water before we run out of oil.”
Those chemicals have also been known to bleed into the soil—the soil that grows the grass, and the grass that feeds New Zealand’s dairy cows.
“We have this food chain of oil moving into our milk,” Self says, “no one seems to be checking our milk.”
What Hughes deems as “shotty practices” are at the root of the anti-fracking movement. A strangely compliant relationship has been building between the oil companies and the Taranaki Regional Council, who are meant to be the regulators; however, it could be argued that the TRC is in cahoots with the oil companies.
“I don’t think they can be in the business of promoting oil and in the business of regulating them,” Roberts says, “I feel there should be a separation.”
Tim Fulton, a senior writer at the Farmers Weekly Newspaper of New Zealand, has covered three oil and gas stories just in the past two months. What he has discovered is what puzzles most New Zealanders: the oil companies seem to possess a certain right to land that the people do not.
Sarah Roberts and David Morrison, photo courtesy of Pip Guthrie.
Academic Fair Use.
Essentially, the oil companies are setting their own standards for the execution of fracking. The Taranaki community fears that that self-regulation, teamed with little government oversight, will relinquish any true benefits of the practice.
“Until the industry can prove that it is safe, we shouldn’t allow it,” Gareth says. “I’d rather the government be putting its attention and focus into clean energy so we can actually have a sustainable development for the long term, ‘cause once the stuff’s gone, it’s gone forever and we’ve missed the opportunity.”
But fracking is a controversial issue for a reason—there are two sides to the story. The debate is as foggy as the dense air escaping from a drill well.
Chris Baker, the CEO of the natural resource advocacy corporation, Straterra, believes that the fracking debate lacks a certain level of intellectual maturity.
“Let’s have a look at evidence behind what’s being done and then decide whether it’s a problem or not,” he says. He points to the Gasland documentary, directed by independent filmmaker Josh Fox, as a source of “misinformation” guiding the public’s viewpoints. “Some of [the issues Gasland raised] were valid in the context of what happened historically in the states, but the implication was created that those concerns continue in New Zealand. The regulations or practice provide no support for that position,” he says.
Chris also says that if managed properly, the impacts of fracking are acceptable; it’s all about risk management. And while they don’t fully support New Zealand’s green image, they do support economic growth.
“We have to encourage economic activity and for that you need oil and gas,” he says, “they want their kids to grow up and have jobs, and that ain’t gonna happen if you don’t have any new business or move to a non fossil fuel economy.”
But Self worries about his kids, too, just in a different sense. “I worry for my children and my grandchildren, if they wish to work on the land,” he says.
Roberts, too, lacks faith in the system and how it will affect the safety of her community. “It feels like everyone’s got their fingers crossed.”