(The Sunshine Coast, near Brisbane, on 13 Mar 2009, after a ship lost a mere 30 to 100 tonnes of fuel).
New Zealand is a tiny island country with an extraordinarily beautiful, clean and – for the most part – green landscape. For a country of less than 270,000 square kilometres, about the size of Colorado, New Zealand’s coastline runs 15,134 kilometres with some of the most pristine, bountiful and species diverse waters in the world, and relies heavily on the marine environment for commercial operations. It is one of the major draws for fishermen, for scientists, and for tourists unparalleled anywhere.
One of New Zealand’s most beautiful virgin rainforests is the Raukumara Forest Park, a 225 hectare scenic reserve with bush, streams, waterfalls, between the Bay of Plenty and the East Cape, on the east coast of the North Island. The Motu and Raukokore river systems flow into the Bay of Plenty, renowned as a surfer’s paradise, and dotted with tranquil bays with pohutukawa trees on beaches of flawless caramel sands. James Cook came ashore here in 1769, and ancient Maori sites confer a native spiritual connection to the land and the shore. It is a gem in New Zealand’s ecological crown.
And on the first of June, Prime Minister John Key’s government announced that the Brazilian Petrobras, one of the world's largest oil companies, has been given permission to drill for oil and gas in more than 12,000 square kilometres out of 25,000 of the Raukumara Basin area. Key’s rightwing National government has actively pursued oil companies over the last 18 months, and is publically delighted to have enticed Petrobas International Braspetro B.V., owned by Brazilian company Petroleo Brasileiro S.A, with annual revenues of US$118.3 billion, one of the biggest players in the global oil and gas industry.
Petrobras also owned the P-36 oil platform, the world’s largest deep-water oil rig pumping 80,000 barrels of crude a day, which sank after an explosion ripped through the structure, killing 10 people, and began spewing oil into Brazilian waters in one of the world’s worst oil platform catastrophes. 395,000 gallons (1.5 million litres) of crude and diesel stored on the rig spilled into the ocean. Although Petrobras’ safety record has improved since the disaster, it’s not one to boast about – the company had already been known for being negligent about employee safety, hiring non-union and ill-trained workers, and had been responsible for 80 accident-related deaths in three years previous to the disaster. Oil spills still regularly mar Brazilian beaches.
New Zealand already has off-shore oil wells operating off the Taranaki coast, but these are in relatively shallow water. The risks are much higher in drilling in deepwater areas, which uses floating drill rigs, unlike the rigs attached to the seafloor in the relatively shallow waters off Taranaki. The oil reservoirs in deep water are also under far greater pressure and temperatures. The potential for cataclysmic disaster is exponentially higher.
Petrobras is searching for huge deep-water oil fields, which potentially could turn New Zealand into the oil-rich Norway of the South Pacific, the politically tempting sugarplums of enormous budget surpluses generated by taxes from big oil companies dancing in the National Party’s dreams. But with the Gulf of Mexico spill decimating America’s coastline, the failure of BP in plugging the Deepwater Horizon leak, the one billion US dollars that America has spent so far with no end in sight, and the prospect of drilling for deep-water oil off the coast of New Zealand has many people less enthused than the government about how much money or how many jobs Petrobras will bring in. Otago University Energy Studies associate professor, Bob Lloyd, has said, ‘All oil drilling in deepwater is a pretty nasty and dangerous game,’ and that New Zealand should put a hold on deepwater drilling. But as all the ‘easy’ oil has been used up and the world approaches peak oil production, oil companies are having to explore more difficult reservoirs. ‘People should not be surprised if more disasters happen.’
And they will. Two engineers with extensive experience in the oil industry have testified to Capitol Hill that the risks for Shell Oil's plans in drilling off the coast of Alaska have not been adequately addressed by the company. Dr. Robert Bea, a former Shell official, and Susan Harvey, who previously worked for BP, expressed serious concerns about Shell's drilling plans, noting that a spill in the Arctic could not be cleaned up. Shell had planned to drill in the Beaufort Sea at the beginning of this month and expand their operations to the Chukchi Sea. Dr. Bea, who now heads the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California-Berkley, said the company's proposal does not provide an accurate assessment of the true risks of drilling in the Arctic. ‘This is imagineering, not engineering.’ Ms. Harvey, who once headed the state agency in Alaska that oversees oil spill prevention and response, noted that the Alaskan North Slope is a particularly risky area to drill given its remoteness and lack of basic infrastructure needed to deploy oil spill response equipment. ‘All of that spill response infrastructure you see in the gulf right now, it doesn't exist in Alaska.’
Even less so in New Zealand. The cost of capping the Deepwater Horizon leak and the subsequent clean-up will run into billions, in one of the most experienced and ‘oil savvy’ countries in the world. New Zealand, with fewer than 5 million inhabitants, has no hope of being able to deal with a disaster of that magnitude. The country has only ever experienced relatively minor oil contamination in coastal waters, so is even less prepared in the event of a similar oil spill. John Key’s government thinks petroleum exploration will be one of our ‘most significant economic opportunities’, creating ‘more jobs, more tax and royalty income’ plus ‘long-term regional development.’ Like most rightwing political principles, money and business always takes a higher priority over the welfare of the land and its people, no matter whose country it is.
Meanwhile, oil companies are still behaving like, well, oil companies. BP is spending more than $10,000 (US) per day that probably would be better put to use cleaning up the horrendous mess it’s made on buying up links on internet search engines to promote itself and attempt to mitigate bad publicity. America's largest oil company, ExxonMobil, is currently threatening an economic backlash to the US should new restrictions on drilling or environmental regulation be imposed on oil companies.
Which also effects New Zealand policy, regardless of the public reaction to the proposed Petrobras drilling. While New Zealand has announced plans to strengthen the country’s Environmental Protection Authority, and proposals for a law requiring an independent national environment report every five years, the Crown Minerals chief petroleum geologist Richard Cook has stated that since no one is planning to do any drilling around New Zealand over the next 18 months, there’s plenty of time for a US investigation into the explosion to be completed before Petrobras’ new deep-water drilling begins to find out why the BP platform exploded and spewed oil in to the Gulf of Mexico. Regulating oil companies or imposing a moratorium on off-shore drilling such as Norway has done is unnecessary. Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee, who awarded Petrobras the exploration permit, has attempted to reassure the country of the government’s commitment to environmental safety. ‘I'm of the strong view that any of the oil companies who might be interested in pursuing their options will themselves, for the matter of their own liability, want to make sure that they are as safe as they possibly can be.’
For a hard look at just how well oil companies have pursued environmental safety since 1967, have a look at this interesting list of Oil Spill History. If that doesn’t convince you that sitting on our hands and doing nothing while hoping Big Oil will ever do the right thing, then see what an oil spill the magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon would look like if were centred in your home town. For comparison, let’s say it’s around Gisborne, near where Petrobras is planning to drill off the coast of New Zealand.
And if this doesn’t terrify you to your very bones, you probably work for BP.