Tracey Barnett

Tracey Barnett is a Herald columnist

Tracey Barnett: Oil pact a dive into deep trouble

It was like a blind date with Hannibal Lecter, when he was still a nice guy. We have just awarded a contract to Brazil's oil giant Petrobras to explore possible deepwater drilling in over 12,000sq km of our waters off the East Cape.

These are some of the angriest seas in the world. The seabed can be almost almost twice as deep as BP's Gulf of Mexico disaster.

Our drilling will have a new safety regulating body that hasn't even been fully born yet. What are we doing?

At this moment the world's ocean is experiencing what may be its worse environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The United States and Norway have put the brakes on offshore exploration until greater minds figure out how to solve this mammoth wound that won't stop haemorrhaging.

Meanwhile our energy minister celebrates this "exciting opportunity" - like Forrest Gump landing in Vietnam. The entire oil industry, let alone the world, is deep breathing - hoping world experts will be able to actually cap this deepwater spill.

And what does our Government do? We not only award a new potential deepwater exploration contract for the East Cape, but are now poised to award two others in Northland and Reinga waters by mid-August.

More unsettling is that the new Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), the folks who may be assessing environmental impact and conducting the deepwater consent process, won't be running at full speed for another year, until July next year.

No board exists yet - indeed, its expanded functions haven't even received legislative approval.

Still worse, for years we have failed to plug a gaping hole in our safety regulations. There is almost no environmental impact assessment regulation for these 200-nautical mile surrounding waters, or our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), an area 16 times our landmass in size.

No worries that the drop in peak oil means oil exploration is moving to chancier, deeper and more dangerous waters - ours. We should all put our trust in Gerry Brownlee because he is putting his trust in oil companies.

He reassures us that "for the sake of their own liability, [oil companies] want to make sure that they are as safe as they possibly can be." Tell that to the people of Louisiana, who are happily boarding planes to holiday in Chernobyl lately.

There is a reason no one has ever drilled in our deep waters. Ministerial buzzwords for deepwater exploration, such as "oil frontier" and "riding the edge of technology", are code for high risk. The Government is proud to say that New Zealand follows international best practices - if only the world knew what those were right now.

Does that mean New Zealand requires an acoustic shut-off valve like Norway and Brazil, the piece of equipment that many say might have saved the Deepwater Horizon rig? Apparently not.

Does that mean New Zealand has outlawed the same oil dispersant, Corexit 9500, that the US government went head-to-head with BP not to use because of its toxicity? No, we have not.

Does that mean that we will separate the folks who will be fast-tracking consents from the people who are setting safety standards so there is no conflict of interest? It's not set up yet in the EPA's expanded form.

What we do have is $12 million worth of oil spill recovery equipment. That's equivalent to what BP is spending on a coffee break in the Gulf of Mexico.

The truth is, best practices got blown out of the water the day the Deepwater Horizon platform exploded and the best minds in the world have not been able to cap a spill in deep water. Someone needs to put that in lights over Gerry Brownlee and Nick Smith's pillow. And what if we did say "no" now? One year of Petrobras' profits almost equal our entire GDP. Awarding the government-owned Brazilian company this contract was partly attractive because it expands our trade relationship with the world's eighth-largest economy.

Can you imagine the political pressure on trade relations if we found the will in five years to say, sorry boys, it's too chancy, after Brazil has invested $118 million?

Even if you set aside the whole idea of wishing we invested in renewal energy instead of looking backward to deeper fossil fuels that risk our shoreline, we have another immediate choice: tell our Government not to sign any more contracts for potential deepwater drilling until the industry knows how to cap a deepwater spill.

Gerry Brownlee is gambling on something no one else knows right now for sure - that in five year's time, we will have the technology to beat Mother Nature.

Meanwhile, we all better hope we get an EPA with real teeth. Iwi fires have reason to sound a warning. I'm just not willing to swim in Louisiana's nightmare because of our Government's shortsighted dreams.

www.traceybarnett.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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