The Adorable Mr Hughes

The Adorable Mr Hughes

Last week Critic caught up with Green MP Gareth Hughes, who was travelling the country holding huis with fellow MP Catherine Delahunty to discuss the impact of drilling, mining, fracking and coal extraction in the hopes of rallying an urban Greenie force.

Drilling, mining and coal are probably familiar to you, but fracking is a new beast, risen to public attention over the past year. “Fracking”, or hydraulic fracturing, is the use of pressurised fluid to break open rocks, releasing gas for extraction.

So what the frack’s up with all the hate on fracking?

Critic: Fracking seems to be getting the most public attention. Why do you think that is?

Gareth: Well, it’s a new technology. It’s on the cusp of a massive expansion in New Zealand, so Greens are concerned. Nelson’s council’s declared themselves frack-free, two investigations have been launched, and the government’s said themselves that there are many unanswered questions. Yeah, it’s gone from no-one knowing what it was a year ago to a public scene.

Critic: What are the big environmental concerns about it?

Gareth: There are heaps! Where you get the massive quantities of water to do a frack job, what happens to the water once you’ve finished with it, what the chemicals being pumped are (some have been shown to be carcinogenic). You’ve got increased earthquakes and greenhouse gas emissions, so there are a huge number of environmental concerns.

Critic: Has it been used much in NZ already?

Gareth: We’ve done fracking mostly in Taranaki, with one frack job in the Waikato. In Taranaki there have been around thirty to forty fracking wells, only using the new horizontal technique in the past ten years. Even then, we’ve seen wells blowing out, consents being breached, water contamination … We’ve seen some really dodgy practices.

Critic: Would you say these are due to companies involved ignoring regulations, or negligent/careless workers?

Gareth: I think it’s probably too early to say, although now we’ve got a Parliamentary environmental investigation on it. I think it highlights that there’s hardly any regulation in NZ. In Taranaki, until last year, they didn’t actually have to apply for a permit from the Council, so it’s gone unpermitted for decades. It’s probably a mix of not high enough standards and poor jobs in trying to construct the wells. We’ve got practices we use in Taranaki that a First Nations representative was amazed by: We still flare the excess gases in an unlined frack pit, just a hole. The waste fluids are often stored in unlined pits, just chucked on the ground. In Taranaki, they’re literally spraying the waste frack fluids on paddocks, for irrigation. It’s very dodgy.

Critic: Moving onto drilling, we know that there are plans for Anadarko to start drilling off the coast here, and there have been a few petitions circulating about that. Why is that such a public issue as well?

Gareth: I think there was massive concern, but it turned it from an academic issue into something people could touch, that they could see and smell on the beaches of Mt Maunganui [after the Rena], so it totally raised the public consciousness of the risks. What we’re seeing in the Great South Basin off the coast of Otago is very deep wells being planned by Anadarko. The Deepwater Horizon spill was a well that only went down to 1500 metres, and we’re talking about maybe twice that depth. This is the absolute frontier of oil-drilling technology, and New Zealanders – and our environment – are going to face 100% of the risk, yet we know we only get 5% of the money from the oil. The economics just don’t stack up. We’ve got the fourth-lowest government take of any producing nation in the world. Last year the oil industry successfully lobbied to get about a dozen oil worker roles put on the skilled shortages list, so they could easily import foreign workers. So my message to the country is ‘look, we’re going to see hardly any royalties, hardly any taxes, hardly any jobs … yet we’re facing 100% of the environmental risk.’ There’s no way the government, or anyone, can guarantee that we won’t see a catastrophic oil spill.

Critic: Do you think it would be worth continuing the drilling if we got more of a profit from it? Is it worth the risk?

Gareth: Ah, no. I mean, this is absolutely risky. We differentiate at drilling above 200 metres – off the coast of Taranaki you’re talking maybe 120, 160 metres – a person can still safely dive down and fix a problem. When you’re drilling at 1500 metres, or three kilometres down, you need advanced technology and submersibles. What we saw in the Gulf of Mexico was a need for a relief well to be brought in, and it took months to clean up the mess. In NZ, at the bottom of the world, it’s going to take six weeks to get a well to NZ, and months more to do it. What we did see out of the Rena was that Maritime NZ just doesn’t have the capability to deal with this spill. That was a few hundred tons, and we could be talking thousands.

Critic: Do you think the odds are high that something will go wrong here? Are we safer than the Gulf?

Gareth: It’s a totally different context. In the Gulf of Mexico they were right in the centre of the world of drilling, and all that expertise, all those resources, all the might of the American government were behind it. I think they had about a thousand vessels and forty thousand people volunteering. Maritime NZ’s got three dinghies. The government’s now passing through Parliament something called the Exclusive Economic Zone Environmental Effects Bill, which is to regulate what happens to NZ … but I think it’s an easy-drilling bill, and it’s basically going to make it very hard to ever stop the projects.

Critic: Is the government putting profit ahead of the safety of people and the environment?

Gareth: Absolutely. Obviously, we’ve got an oil problem in NZ. We’re importing 160,000 barrels of oil a day, it’s getting more expensive … but there’s no oil reduction plan, only an oil production plan. They’re gambling it all on trying to become the Texas of the South Pacific, but this is a totally new ball game. We can’t guarantee its safety; it shouldn’t go ahead. You’re going to wreck that clean, green brand. The public doesn’t want a bar of it, because they can see the risks in the Gulf of Mexico and the Rena, and I don’t think NZ has the capability to deal with it and manage the risks.

Critic: Public awareness is really high about these issues. Do you think this is because people are increasingly aware of approaching peak oil and the fact that it causes so much damage?

Gareth: Yeah, I think people really realise. There was a poll, I think a couple of years ago, that showed that I think around 87% of people wanted the government to invest in things like public transport and alternative fuels, but instead they went with the “drill it, mine it, frack it” approach, the benefits of which just don’t stack up economically. The Gulf of Mexico and the Rena really pushed that into a high profile.

Critic: We export the oil produced here, don’t we?

Gareth: We don’t use any of it. We export about a third of what we import. Even if we did strike it big we wouldn’t pay any less for petrol in NZ, because we still have to send it all offshore for refining.

Critic: What do you think we can invest in instead of this?

Gareth: Well, the renewable electricity market is predicted to be $800 billion over the next few years. With Meridian and Genesis exporting a little of their technology and taking one percent of that global market, that’s $8 billion added to our economy and up to 70,000 jobs. Last year, the amount globally invested in renewable electricity outpaced fossil fuels, which is a real tipping point. [In NZ] that really enhances the tourism and cultural sectors, because people want to buy things from a safe, pure country. If we’ve got fracking all over the country and an oil spill off the coast, that’s going to damage our economy.
This article first appeared in Issue 10, 2012.
Posted 12:51am Monday 7th May 2012 by Staff Reporter.