John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Drilling gift for Greens a dilemma for Labour

Cartoon / Guy Body
Cartoon / Guy Body

Stetsons at dawn? Even in their wildest moments of untrammelled optimism, the Greens - with the wider environmental lobby - would struggle to come up with an artifice which so marvellously helps their cause to quite the degree that the Anadarko Petroleum Corporation has managed to do.

The ghost of J.R. Ewing was already stalking the blogs long before the Texas-based oil exploration giant began its highly controversial deep-water drilling programme on Monday in the Taranaki Basin, off the west coast of the North Island.

For many of those who only see environmental evil in deep-water drilling and - just as crucially, if not more so - those who have yet to make up their minds, the only difference between the worlds inhabited by Anadarko and the fictional Ewing Oil is that the real-life company's headquarters are in Houston, not Dallas.

The current script also requires a villain of similar proportions, and one that also fit a stereotypical view of Texans. And in Anadarko - the very name conveys menace - those campaigning against deep-water drilling have got the perfect, fit-for-purpose example.

The likes of Greenpeace, who have been trying to block Anadarko's programme either on the water or off it in the court room, do not have to spell out the word "cowboy" in both its meanings. The public already has a stereotypical view of oil companies - one that not even the best public relations money can buy is capable of shifting.

In Anadarko's case, it is doubly difficult. It was a part-owner of the blown well responsible for the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Anadarko later forked out about $4 billion to BP, the well's majority owner, to settle various claims the two companies were making against one another, plus clean-up obligations.

No matter how many awards you have received for technical excellence - and Anadarko has won more than a few - the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon well is a millstone that the company's critics will forever hang around its neck.

That Anadarko's arrival in New Zealand may be the best news that the Greens' "peak oil" campaign has received in a long time could be judged from last weekend's beach protests against the drilling ship.

They may have been sparsely attended. But they did take place.

The drilling vessel may have been over the horizon. But it has provided a focus not only for the debate on the acknowledged environmental risks of deep-water drilling, but for a much wider one on fossil fuel shortages, of which deep-water drilling is a symptom.

The Greens' push for the country to shift far further in the direction of renewable energies has stalled somewhat. The Greens' warnings of oil shortages to come have failed to hit home with gas-guzzling New Zealanders who fill their petrol tanks without a first, second, third or any thought at all for the environment.

The Greens' master-stroke was to get their former co-leader, Jeanette Fitzsimons, aboard the Vega, the yacht that repeatedly infringed the exclusion zone around the drilling ship. As someone who knows all the arguments backwards surrounding the future of fossil fuels, she was in her element. Her relentless urgings for the adoption of Greens-based solutions within a largely unsympathetic Parliament have given her huge stocks of credibility. That transformed the on-the-water protest into something more than just another Greenpeace stunt.

Had she been arrested, more than a few people in middle New Zealand would have sided with her. National would have been nervous about such an eventuality shifting public opinion that largely backs the party's newfound, gung-ho attitude to mineral exploration.

There would thus have been some relief in the Beehive that officials did not step in to uphold the law, thus giving Greenpeace no opportunity to grandstand.

In getting a former MP on to the Vega rather than a current one, the Greens have appeared to have put just enough distance between themselves and Greenpeace should things have gone horribly wrong on the high seas.

The upshot, however, is that the drilling continues. Ideally for the Greens, the drilling programme will fail to find any commercially viable oil fields. For a major strike would be the worst possible news for the Greens by removing a major incentive to use renewable energy. It would be cheap oil, not peak oil.

Anadarko would suddenly find itself removed from pariah status to being the saviour of the economy - especially if production was at a level that eventually made New Zealand some kind of Saudi Arabia of the South Pacific.

In briefings to ministers covering exploratory drilling, officials noted that up to 8000 jobs in Taranaki were either directly or partly attributable to the province's oil and gas reserves. They also pointed out that future discoveries could yield more than $5 billion in extra royalties.

When it came to potential environmental damage from exploratory drilling, ministers were told "catastrophic" offshore blow-outs were rare - "one every few years" worldwide. The relatively small number of wells drilled in New Zealand suggested a blow-out was "unlikely". However, the "true likelihood was unclear" but could be affected by oilfield pressure and the depth of the drilling.

Ministers accepted this bob-each-way advice from bureaucrats. But it is not ministerial minds that the Greens have to work on. National will continue to ignore the Greens' call for a deep-water drilling ban - at least until the first major spill.

It is Labour minds that will need convincing. And, as on myriad issues, Labour's caucus is split between environmentalists who do not want the Greens to get all the kudos for opposing drilling against those MPs who fear the Greens' real agenda is to stop all mining and drilling for oil.

The difference is the Greens are using the policy to try to attract the relatively small number of votes to reach their target of 15 per cent of the vote at next year's election. Labour's ambivalence reflects a fear of losing a relatively large number of votes by coming down too firmly on one side of the argument.

David Cunliffe has attempted to defuse the row with a holding position that Labour would potentially support Anadarko's drilling if it met best-practice and environmental and clean-up standards - something that the company had yet to achieve.

However, at some point he will have to come off the fence. Until then Labour may have as many positions as were suspects for the answer to that ultimate question: Who shot JR?

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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