Hydraulic Fracturing - "Fracking"

What is it?

If you Google “fracking” or “hydraulic fracturing”, you’ll find dozens of articles and small videos on-line. The process involves sending water, sand and a cocktail of chemicals under pressure to a layer of shale, shattering rock and releasing gas and oil that have been trapped in the rock. The gas or oil then flow freely to the surface.

Is it safe?

Consider these things:
Near drilling sites in the United States, people have fallen ill, animals have lost hair or fur, and fish and birds have died. Water has been contaminated with radioactive material (radium 226, strontium and barium), heavy metals and carcinogens. Methane gas has entered pipes taking water into homes and the air has been polluted. In Australia, a government report into drilling sites found that half of the gas well heads tested were leaking methane gas.

Fracking has been suspended or banned in several places, where it is suspected of having caused small earthquakes or swarms of earthquakes: Blackpool, England; Arkansas, US; New Jersey, US; Basel, Switzerland. Two recent earthquakes in upstate New York are associated with wells into which toxic fluids have been injected for disposal purposes. 

Fracking has been banned in France, Quebec, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and the Karoo region of South Africa. The EU has proposed a moratorium while investigation is carried out. Moratoria are in place in New South Wales and New York State. The National Toxics Network in Australia has called on state and federal governments to introduce, as a matter of urgency, a moratorium on all drilling and fracking chemicals until they have been examined independently.

Promoters of the oil and gas industry claim fracking is safe. America’s Environmental Protection Authority has admitted that the chemicals used are toxic, but insists they pose ‘no risk’. Weston Wilson, former member of the EPA, accuses those who dismiss the risk of conflict of interest.

Is fracking used in New Zealand?

Yes. It is already employed in Taranaki. Overseas companies are currently seeking permits to take this practice into many parts of the country. Serious preparatory work is taking place in Southland’s Waiau Basin and exploratory work has been approved in Canterbury. 

Will regulations protect New Zealanders against the poisoning of aquifers and rivers?

It is almost impossible to monitor the effects of the toxins sent into the ground by the fracking process. Companies are not obliged to disclose the commercially sensitive chemical mix. In Australia, the National Toxics Network has released a briefing paper in which Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith states, “Constituents of fracking fluids are often considered ‘trade secrets’ and not revealed. … The ones we were able to identify concerned us because of their potential to cause significant damage to the environment and human health. Some are linked with cancer and birth defects, while others damage the hormone system of living things and affect aquatic species at very low levels.” Dr Lloyd-Smith has indicated that fracking uses “a very large quantity of chemicals ... Whether they stay underground or they are brought back to the surface and placed in evaporation ponds, there are significant risks of pollution to waterways, the atmosphere and surrounding communities.” (posted Feb 21.2011 by the National Toxics Network)

The “chemicals used in fracking … are not easily biodegradable,” says Gavin Mudd, an environmental engineer at Monash University. “Often the impacts are cumulative; some of the chemicals can slowly build up in the food chain in the long term.” (Tozer and Cudby, Sydney Morning Herald, Oct 19, 2010) In Queensland, where gas exploration has proliferated, the fat of cattle has been found to contain carcinogenic benzene and toluene.

In addition to the injection of toxic chemicals, the process can disturb and release toxic gases and radioactive substances. An Australian Senate Inquiry has heard from medical experts that “BTEX chemicals [benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene] have been used in fracking, in the United States and other parts of the world .... The fracking process itself can release BTEX from natural gas reservoirs, allowing them to escape into aquifers or the surrounding air. ... They are a class of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds, which easily vaporise so people can be exposed through drinking water, bathing or breathing in vapour.” (Vicki Anderson, The Press, 24.07.11)

Gas industry representatives say that rock which is fractured lies below the level of
aquifers. In fact, the depth of the target rock is variable. Contaminated frack-water can seep through fissures. Sometimes the load of chemicals is lost into an aquifer situated above the target rock, sometimes a well collapses, releasing the toxic mix into an aquifer.

Huge volumes of water are used, up to 20 million litres for each frack. The wastewater from the process is unusable subsequently. It must be disposed of somehow. Containment ponds and wastewater pits often fail. Treatment is generally not equal to the task of removing heavy metals, poisons and radioactive contaminants.

The scale of operations tends to escalate. In Pennsylvania, more than 3,000 new bores have been sunk in a single year, many of them close to lakes and waterways. The result is an “ecological disaster area”. (Dominion Post, Aug 13, 2011, p. A9)

How can the proliferation of fracking be explained?

In the US in the past decade, a landowner or country home-owner has typically been approached by a gas company official offering a substantial sum to lease land for drilling. People living in economically depressed areas have been especially susceptible to such offers. A non-disclosure clause has prevented subsequent health and water quality complaints from being made public. The mining activity has improved the economy of a number of districts initially.

Ohai, in Southland’s Waiau Basin, is at the centre of a proposed shale-gas extraction area. All the shops in the town are empty and the district needs economic stimulation. L&M Energy holds two permits to drill in the Waiau Basin.

What benefits or disadvantages could fracking bring to Aotearoa-New Zealand?

The Government’s share of revenue secured from the sale of the extracted oil or gas is a small percentage.

There could be a short-term boost to the economy of some districts.

Poisoning aquifers, increasing earthquake risk, contaminating streams and rivers, releasing methane gas and radioactive material from layers beneath the surface, and undermining the health of people and animals are among the negative consequences of fracking.

The suggestion that company and industry practice would be better here in Aotearoa-New Zealand than it has been in the US or elsewhere is open to question. Wherever it is practised, hydraulic fracturing deploys a secret mix of toxic chemicals, as well as sand and huge quantities of water. It produces the wastewater that must be disposed of.

We do NOT want toxic chemicals injected into the earth and rock of Aotearoa-New Zealand, or radioactive substances released through fracking.

Anyone in doubt can consult, then click on “The Updated Briefing Paper”, posted 30 June 2011, to find a thorough study by Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith and Dr Rye Senjen, of Australia’s National Toxics Network, which seeks “A Moratorium on Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals”.

The National Council of Women is asking that the same concerns, identified by Australia’s National Toxics Network, be addressed in Aotearoa-New Zealand.


a comprehensive hazard assessment, requiring disclosure by the industry of all toxins used. It is unacceptable to claim that this information is “commercially sensitive”;

a comprehensive health and environment assessment:
a) associated with hydraulic fracturing’s release of gases that were formerly confined below the surface and,
b) associated with the release of toxins through seismic activity or failure of well

a full cost-benefit analysis to investigate long-term impacts, addressing the potential to trigger seismic activity, potential contamination that may affect farming, tourism and domestic water supply, and potential increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

Article by Dell Panny - Convener of the Environment Standing Committee for the National Council of Women, New Zealand

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