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Broadsides: Rena oil spill

Labour MP Jacinda Ardern and National MP Nikki Kaye.
Labour MP Jacinda Ardern and National MP Nikki Kaye.

Labour's Jacinda Ardern and National's Nikki Kaye on the lessons from the Rena oil spill.


Growing up, one of my school friends had an old family bach at Mt Maunganui. If it wasn't Whangamata we all trekked over to during the summer, it was the Mount. Even that old distant connection has left me devastated by the environmental disaster that is 'Rena.' I can only imagine how those who call the Bay of Plenty home must be feeling.

Right now, the focus should, of course, be on the clean-up. But I make absolutely no apologies for our continued pressure on the government to make sure every option has been explored in ensuring that the operation has moved as quickly as possible, and we have offered all of our assistance to do that.

Asking questions, though, is not political. Holding the government to account when a ship sat on a reef for four days, with very little information communicated about its status, is not political. Making sure residents and the public are supported and can play a role in the clean-up of their own back yard is not political; it's our job.

Yes, there is a time and a place for recrimination, but when the country is facing the worst environmental disaster of our lifetime, wildlife are dying in the thousands, and tonnes of oil are washing up on our beaches, everyone has the right to ask whether there is more we could be doing or, indeed, how it happened in the first place.

Issues around ships like Rena are not a new phenomenon. I know a few old wharfies, and they have tales of their own around ships with the title 'flags of convenience.' These are the ships that are so driven to keep costs down and avoid liability for accidents that they register in countries where labour laws and regulations are more lax than anywhere else and operate across international waters. The fact that the government failed to implement an international convention around liability for oil pollution, despite a select committee report and advice from its own ministry, is also an indictment of Mr Joyce and John Key. Taxpayers and businesses are suffering - as well as the environment.

We already knew flags of convenience ships were a problem in New Zealand and were making it difficult for us to rebuild our own coastal shipping industry by not paying taxes in New Zealand and under-cutting local operators. Labour decided to do something about it. While we were in government, we introduced a policy called 'Sea Change'. It was our way of reinvigorating our own coastal shipping industry and reducing our reliance on ships like Rena. For reasons I don't understand, National scrapped the policy when it came into power.

I'm not saying that our policy could have single-handedly stopped this disaster from happening, but surely it has to act as further evidence for why it should be reinstated.

There are other lessons to be learnt from this disaster. For months now there has been a debate over whether we should be allowing deep sea drilling for oil off the coast of New Zealand. If nothing else, Rena shows what is at stake if things go wrong (just as the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico did) and, shockingly, how ill-prepared we are for such a disaster. We cannot ignore this lesson, which is why Labour has said that we will not allow deep sea drilling in New Zealand until we can be absolutely assured that environmental protection and safety measures are in place, and right now we're not.

There's no denying that we are still an oil dependent nation, but there is also no denying that this comes at a cost. While I hope we learn lessons from Rena by rebuilding our own coastal shipping industry and make sure we are much better prepared for salvage operations in future, I also hope we take away a much bigger message: we have to start thinking about the alternatives.

No longer is the issue of peak oil and what we do when this finite resource runs out an issue solely of the environmental movements; it has to be, and is, an issue for all of us. We have always been a nation of firsts, of ideas, and staunchly proud (although not always genuine protectors) of our natural environment. Why not be the first nation to truly focus on the potential of renewables?

If Rena proves nothing else, it's shown us what is at stake. I hope it's a lesson we learn.

Jacinda Ardern is on Facebook and Twitter @jacindaardern


In the early hours of Wednesday 5th of October, the cargo ship Rena crashed into Astrolabe Reef just off the coast of Tauranga. The ship was carrying 1360 containers and 1700 tonnes of heavy diesel oil.

What most people don't know is that a top level alert from Maritime New Zealand was issued early on Wednesday morning. Experts were aboard by Wednesday evening, and the response swung into action immediately. Even if oil removal ships had arrived earlier, they could not have pumped oil off the Rena because of damage to the ship's pipes. Welders and other experts braved atrocious conditions to ready those pipes for a job that they weren't designed for.

I'm sure we'll hear more about the conditions that the salvors have been dealing with, but that is a discussion for another day. Protecting the Bay of Plenty's environment is at the forefront of the Government's response. We have simply got to get as much oil safely off the ship as we can. And we are. The Government has been getting on with the work of coordinating the cleaning up of the beaches and saving as much wildlife as we can. The salvage team has been successfully transferring oil off the ship and as of today 90 tonnes of oil have been transferred onto the Awanuia - we still have over 1300 tonnes to go.

For an island nation which prides itself on its pristine marine environment and beach-loving culture, this is a pretty upsetting event for our country. We understand that this is serious. We also understand that the Government can't re-wind history. It can't transport itself into the bridge and correct the vessel's course, nor can it call for some sort of miraculous rescue using resources that don't exist.

What we can deal with is what is happening now, using rules previously endorsed by a Government that had been in office for nine years. The Government has also responded in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico disaster. There was an independent review of New Zealand's regulations and systems for managing the risks. This review found New Zealand's regulations and systems were in good shape, with the exception of the gap in respect of assessment of environmental effects in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The Government has introduced legislation based on world's best practise for the EEZ and put in place interim arrangements. This legislation was supported by the Greens but opposed by Labour.

Significant political comment has surrounded this situation in Tauranga, which some might say is inevitable when we are approaching an election. Mother Nature is also playing its part. It's challenging and risky work. We simply can't put people's lives at risk. I admire the dedicated people who are braving the heaving seas and precariously balanced containers to venture aboard to do this dangerous salvage work. And the volunteer effort by locals reflects their commitment to the environment and protecting their stunning coastline - a commitment I saw when I was there speaking to environmental groups long before this grounding.

But that is just what I would expect from Kiwis who love their patch of paradise. Those dedicated locals remain vigilantly on standby in case more oil washes ashore.

Further down the track the issue of compensation and who pays for this disaster will be decided. The Prime Minister has made it clear that he expects the owners of Rena, Costamare, will do their fair share and contribute to the clean-up. They've already made a down payment and that will be welcomed. Alongside this, the Government is also looking at a temporary Compensation Package for those affected by the situation such as local businesses; at least two investigations will look into why the grounding happened so it can be avoided in the future; and charges have been laid against those who were in charge of the ship at the time of the grounding.

There are also currently two investigations being carried out into the Rena grounding to ensure accountability is paramount. The Transport Accident Investigation Commission is looking into how and why the grounding occurred with a view to avoiding similar occurrences in future (rather than to ascribe blame to any person). Meanwhile Maritime NZ is looking into the accident with a view to prosecuting for any wrongdoing. People can keep up to date with the Maritime NZ investigation here.

The situation in Tauranga is frustrating and heart-breaking but locals, government agencies, local iwi and many community organisations are stepping up to do everything we can to mitigate the harm to our beaches, plants and wildlife.

Nikki Kaye is on Facebook and Twitter @nikkikaye

Do you have a topic you would like Nikki Kaye and Jacinda Ardern to tackle? Email us.

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