Friday 3 May 2013

Deep Waters And Broken Horizons

Pristine Coastline: The Government's plans to bring deep-sea oil exploration and exploitation to New Zealand's Exclusive Economic Zone threaten the unspoiled beauty of its coasts, the survival of its flora and fauna and the future of its fishing and tourism industries.
THE NORTH OTAGO COUNTRYSIDE descends in a series of broad terraces towards the sea. So, when I was a child, the journey home was all downhill. On the farm where I grew up, those smooth-topped hills came to an abrupt end, dropping suddenly to the flat paddocks and meandering creeks that ran out among the sea grass and sand dunes of Otago’s curving shoreline. 

Behind our homestead, all was high hills and distant mountains, but before it ran the ruled line of the Pacific’s far horizon. Well, it seemed far to me, but, in reality, it was only a few miles away. Even so, the world lay beyond it, infinitely far, and every night I’d fall asleep to the steady rhythm of the breakers whose soft whispers I could never quite decipher.
Fifty years later, those breakers' messages are suddenly intelligible: full of warning and fears for the future. Because, if Prime Minister Key and his gung-ho Energy Minister, Simon Bridges, get their way, then the unsullied line of the Pacific will be defiled. 

Rising between the horizon and the shore, gas stacks flaring in the wind like the banners of a feudal host, will be oil platforms. And everything I cherished as a child: the rush-lined creeks; the orange and white pebble beaches; the fishing grounds; the circling gulls; the little estuaries and wide river mouths; will be one accident away from destruction.
Of course, Mr Bridges will tell me exactly what he told the 600 oil prospectors and their enablers gathered at the Advantage New Zealand Conference in Auckland on Monday, that: “New Zealand has a world-class regulatory system that ensures the safety of its people and its environment, alongside greater resource development.”
I wish that was true. I wish that before any company was permitted to lower their drilling equipment more than a thousand metres to the bottom of the sea they had to have all the necessary salvage equipment ready and waiting, just hours away, in the event of something going wrong.
Because things do go wrong with deep sea oil wells. And Robert P. Daniels, Senior Vice President, International and Deepwater Exploration, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, a guest speaker at the Advantage New Zealand Conference, could’ve told Mr Bridges all about them.
Because the Anadarko Petroleum Corporation was there when something very serious went wrong on a deep sea oil platform. Anadarko owned 25 percent of the Deepwater Horizon when it exploded, killing eleven men, and unleashing, more than a mile below, the first of the 780,000 cubic metres of crude oil that devastated the unprotected Gulf of Mexico.
Disaster On The High Seas: The Deepwater Horizon tragedy took 87 days to contain - and that was in the Gulf of Mexico where salvage equipment was close by. A similar oil spill would take many more months to contain if it happened off the New Zealand coast.
It took 87 days to finally cap that oil gusher – and that was when the necessary (and eye-wateringly expensive) equipment required for the job was located only a few days sailing time from the scene of the disaster.
If something akin to the Deepwater Horizon disaster happened here in New Zealand, that equipment would take not days, but months, to arrive. While it was being assembled an environmental catastrophe beyond the imagination of most New Zealanders would be destroying our flora and fauna, fouling our coastline, and inflicting damage on our fishing and tourist industries that only decades could repair.
None of this information appears in Mr Bridges’ speech to the oil explorers. What he did say, after listing the vast strips of New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone which the National Government has opened for exploration, was this:
“Many of you have actively engaged with the Government on the review of the Crown Minerals Act, the introduction of environmental legislation into the Exclusive Economic Zone and on new health and safety regulations for petroleum operations.
“I thank you for your tireless efforts to help make our laws and regulations world-class.”
In other words, Mr Bridges thanks the oil exploration companies for “actively engaging” in the task of drawing up the legislation intended to regulate the behaviour of … the oil exploration companies.
Included among the regulatory provisions of this “world-class” legislation are Mr Bridges’ clauses permitting the armed forces to be used against New Zealand citizens challenging the oil exploration companies. Any repetition of the actions that drove Petrobras out of the Raukumara Basin will see protesters facing massive fines and serious jail time.
Our country faces a sudden downhill journey – but we are not going home.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 3 May 2013.


Anonymous said...

Good story Chris ,well expressed,
I also feel that my cherished place in childhood is also threatened [East Coast North Island]
It is certain that we must not give up in the face of this shortsighted thinking. Simon Bridges knows that accidents happen as the Rena mishap was in his patch.
The potential for a much larger disaster comes with these ill considered plan . Dottiann

Richard Christie said...

Good article, but you cover less than half the associated risks and only mention risks localised to NZ risk at that.

Opening up new oil fields and burning the carbon contained therein is exactly the wrong thing to be planning to do as atmospheric CO2 reaches 400 ppm. Such an action may contribute to a catastrophe of global proportions.

Scouser said...

Wonderful hyperbole.

1st a disclaimer, I spent several years working in the exploration and production research arm of a petrochemical company.

Oil disasters don't "destroy" - they vary from barely noticeable to kill lots of flora and fauna for up to 2 maybe 3 years. The vast majority are the former. Full recovery typically takes 1-6 years when there is environmental damage. Might sound semantic to you but the environment recovers as release of petrochemicals in to the environment is very common by natural causes and let's not forget petrochemicals are actually completely organic.

I'm not trying to belittle the consequences of the gulf spill. It was a disaster but trying to conflate the 2nd worst ever oil disaster with the likely risks in an NZ environment is akin to stating that without the money from oil everyone in North Otago will die of starvation. Both are ludicrous.

However, like you, I do have concerns about the regulatory environment as safety is a complex issue and I don't see how NZ would have the skills and experience to know what is reasonable and as a small country I could see one of the smaller companies doing a fast one on us. The large petrochems would not want to out of sheer self interest but might still screw up.

The Gulf of Mexico is a good example of bad regulation. You have a large almost completely encircled bay with little chance of dispersement of oil with very deep water rigs. They should not 'dig' for oil there. It's that simple. Any similar set-ups in NZ should be banned and strangely enough the risk profile for NZ is massively less. Who wud a thought?

On a side note - the use of dispersement chemicals appears to exacerbate the damage btw. A political and not a scientific decision.

I also like the picture painted of "Rising between the horizon and the shore, gas stacks flaring in the wind like the banners of a feudal host, will be oil platforms". Really? What more can I say? We should be so lucky to have so many rigs - if we get 20 we would be doing well and I doubt more than a couple would be visible from the shore. I would even suggest that being sufficiently off shore should be a requirement to reduce risks. Flaring is often banned with large fines attached as well. You also don't flare with gas fields like Maui - it's like setting light to $ notes. Expectations are that our fields would have a large gas component.

Of course, nothing like banks of giant wind turbines forced in to the eyeline by being on the tops of hills etc. And at least the large number of birds they kill are done renewably eh?

I'm not convinced that we extract a sufficient portion of the rewards from the rights we provide to extract petrochems but suspect with the huge additional reserves appearing courtesy of shale oil/gas (as predicted for 30 years) and our small size we aren't in a sellers' market.

However, I still believe you're high on luddite like emotion and correspondingly low on any real science or facts.

Removing the extravagant prose - Oil/Gas exploration won't turn North Otago in to a post apocalyptic landscape but we need to control how we take value out of the resources that NZ has and I do agree safety is an issue we should be concerned about.

Victor said...

All a big cause for worry.

Whatever the theoretical economic case for oil exploitation, we are a lamentably under-resourced,under-regulated and badly-regulated country (c.f. leaky buildings, Pike River, Rena, CTV etc.) and could neither sustain nor manage the disasters that such exploitation could conceivably lead to.

Anonymous said...

But...but... regulations hamper development Victor.

Davo Stevens said...

@ Scouser;
If what you say is so then why has Prince Edward Sound still not fully recovered from the Valdez disaster? It's been longer than 6 years!

We here in Kiwiland don't have the necessary equipment to deal with a serious leak and it will take days before that equipment can be brought here. Until the technology improves we are better to wait. The technology is still in it's infancy.

Another point: Who gets the profits? Who gets the benefit of any oil or gas found there? Do we? If, say Petrobras were to have found deposits there, would we gett the returns? No, Brazil would get it not us.

When Maui was sold to Shell, NZ gets $1.30/barrel of condensate from them and just a few jobs where the Govt. gets the taxes dragged out of the workers. How does that improve our economy?

I watched the 'Nation' the other day with the interview with Sleazy Stevie our Minister of Almost Everything. He's as slippery as a wet eel and need to go out and get a real job.

David said...

There's also the handy three strikes law to put persistent protestors away for 14 years or more without parole

Jigsaw said...

Well put Scouser! If you read the recent reports on the Gulf spill then you can see that the environment does recover and remarkably quickly. The same applies to the Rena where there is little evidence left of the oil spill that was associated with the wreck. Where are the Greens now one wonders?

Shazza said...

Scouser - that was the single most helpful essay I've read about oil exploration in NZ to date - thank you.

Scouser said...


"If what you say is so then why has Prince Edward Sound still not fully recovered from the Valdez disaster? It's been longer than 6 years!"

You conflate the 3rd worst ever oil disaster with NZ - same argument applies as to the Gulf disaster. There is reasonable evidence that the Valdez disaster was significantly exacerbated by the use of chemicals - an important point I feel.

I also said typically not guaranteed - plus there is some dispute around the extent of recovery.

You reinforce my point that oil tankers are actually a risk that I, personally, have greater and significant concerns about. And not exploring for oil is not a saviour as we either ship it in to use or ship it out to sell.

I repeat my point that my refuting of inflated claims of disaster scenarios does not mean we should ignore any concerns.

I concur with Chris in that we need to change the way we regulate petrochemical production.