New Zealand at risk of becoming the next oil exploration frontier

Deep sea drilling will threaten the marine life that New Zealand is so renowned for. The government is also gambling with the country's economy and green reputation.
Deep sea drilling will soon commence in the rough waters off the NZ coast. This could mark the beginning of an oil rush in which democratic process, public concern, environmental protection and safety considerations are all swept aside.
The logical future direction for New Zealand is blatantly obvious if it wants to live up to its green reputation

The Arctic is a unique and globally significant ecosystem. It is a fragile wilderness that is being rapidly reshaped by human actions. Anthropogenic climate change is driving the loss of sea ice, leaving ever greater expanses of the Arctic Ocean ice free.

With a tragic inevitability, oil companies like Gazprom and Shell are greedily eyeing up the opportunities for offshore exploration in this new frontier. If an oil spill were to happen in the Arctic, the damage would be devastating on a global scale. 

This is why 30 brave people took part in a peaceful protest against Gazprom, one of the oil companies that is rushing to exploit the Russian Arctic. The heavy handed response of the Russian authorities to the Arctic 30 is clearly intended to make an example of those who are willing to raise their voice to protect the world’s most vulnerable areas from reckless and profiteering oil companies. 

Mirroring the Arctic: the New Zealand story 

Half a world away, an eerily similar story to the one the world is watching in the Arctic is unfolding. The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around New Zealand is fifteen times larger than the country’s land area - it extends from the sub-tropical to the sub-Antarctic. Like the Arctic, New Zealand’s EEZ supports a multitude of species which travel from far-flung areas of the globe to reach these rich waters. Like the Arctic, New Zealand’s EEZ is fast becoming an oil exploration frontier. 

In the Arctic, drilling rig operators must contend with the extreme polar conditions and sea ice. In New Zealand, notoriously rough seas and the deep ocean will test the limits of drilling technology. The deepest offshore oil production well in New Zealand is currently 125 m below the ocean’s surface. In a matter of weeks, Texan oil company Anadarko will drill its first deep sea oil well 1500 m below the waves of the Tasman sea. This is the first exploration well in what is shaping up to be an onslaught of deep sea oil drilling in the coming years. 

To expedite the deep sea oil rush, a legislative process is underway to remove any consultation rights from the New Zealand public regarding proposals to drill new offshore exploratory oil wells. Meanwhile, in May of 2013 the government rushed through a law, infamously known as the ‘Anadarko amendment’, banning protest within 500 m of a rig or drill ship operating within the New Zealand EEZ. The penalties for entering this 500 m zone include hefty fines and up to a year in prison. Like the Russian response to the Arctic 30, the message from the New Zealand government is clear: opposition to oil drilling is not welcome here.

The logical future direction for New Zealand is blatantly obvious if it wants to live up to its green reputation

The dangers of deep sea oil 

Public concern in New Zealand over this deep sea oil rush is understandable. In 2010, the environmental and economic devastation that a deep sea oil spill may cause became a terrible reality in the Gulf of Mexico. Vast quantities of oil gushed into the Gulf unimpeded for 87 days before the spill was capped. As a quarter share investor in the well, Anadarko (the same company at the vanguard of the New Zealand oil rush) were found jointly liable for the worst oil spill in history.

The New Zealand government claims that the nation is equipped to deal with a deep sea oil spill. Despite the imminent arrival of Anadarko’s drill ship, a full environmental impact assessment for the drilling has yet to be released by the country’s Environmental Protection Agency. A key piece of information - the spill modelling showing what the possible impacts of a deep sea spill may be - has been withheld from the New Zealand public.

In the face of this obfuscation, Greenpeace New Zealand commissioned its own spill modelling. The results of the industry standard numerical modelling paint a sobering picture of just how unprepared the country is to deal with even a small oil spill.

The oil spill model for New Zealand: allows visitors to explore the likely impacts of an oil spill, as well as the science behind the model. 

It is New Zealand’s clean, green reputation which attracts tourists, a fact exploited by the 100% Pure New Zealand marketing brand used by Tourism New Zealand. The nation’s export economy is also heavily reliant on this reputation. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that the effects of a spill would be devastating and long-lasting for New Zealand’s environment and economy. A question that arises from all this, is what does New Zealand stand to gain if vast oil reserves are found in its deep oceans? 

Not worth the rush 

Politicians and industry give vague promises of an economic boost, energy security and more jobs as a justification for risky oil exploration. However, carbon-intensive assets are likely to be stranded as global pressure mounts for stronger regulation of carbon emissions before we exceed 2°C warming, perceived as the climate tipping point from which there will be no return.

By the time any current offshore exploration permits in New Zealand have moved into production, which is likely to be in five to ten years time, the economic landscape may well mean that costly deep sea operations are no longer tenable. In essence, the emerging picture is that, as a new deep sea oil exploration frontier, New Zealand will carry all the risk and could stand to reap very little reward.

To protect fragile frontiers such as the Arctic and the deep oceans of New Zealand from the threat of catastrophic oil spills and the effects of a changing climate, the world is crying out for a shift away from fossil fuels. With 75% of its electricity demands already met by renewable sources, New Zealand is exceptionally well placed to capitalise on the growing global demand for renewable energy and climate change solutions.

In fact, economic analysis reveals that investing in clean energy can create four times more jobs than investing the same amount in oil and gas industries. The logical future direction for New Zealand is blatantly obvious if it wants to live up to its green reputation.

The actions of the Arctic 30 in Russia exemplify the enormous courage and conviction needed to protect the world’s most vulnerable wildernesses from exploitation by oil companies like Gazprom, Shell and Anadarko. In New Zealand, the movement opposing deep sea oil is growing and ultimately, where the people lead, ‘the leaders’ will have no choice but to follow.

The coming antipodean summer marks the crossroads where the energy future of New Zealand will be decided.

Rachael Shaw joined Greenpeace after completing her PhD studies. Her role involves communicating the scientific work of Greenpeace in New Zealand.

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