Simon Boxer: Prevention of oil spills better than cure

No country, no matter what their means or technologies, can put the genie back in the bottle once a major marine oil spill is underway. 
Photo / Christine Cornege.
No country, no matter what their means or technologies, can put the genie back in the bottle once a major marine oil spill is underway. Photo / Christine Cornege.

Since the Rena ran aground on the Astrolabe reef, popular sentiment around the push to set up a deep sea oil drilling industry in New Zealand's waters has changed markedly. The debate has moved far beyond the simplistic confines of how the Government and the oil industry try to frame it - as being the difference between being rich or poor. This has occurred partly because while we all know that an oil spill is a bad thing, the sight of a Little Blue Penguin, covered in oil, brings the issue very much into the realms of the "here and now''.

People are also pretty clear that 350 tonnes of oil (the most that has come from the Rena so far) goes a long way towards killing wildlife, and ruining livelihoods. They also know that the Deepwater Horizon spill in Gulf of Mexico would dwarf the Rena's - the Horizon leaked 682,000 tonnes. But what is also changing people's perceptions of the deep water oil issue, is the way in which the authorities' response to the spill has severely undercut the Government's continued assurances that New Zealand has plans in place to deal with a major spill.

Earlier this year, the Acting Energy and Resources Minister, Hekia Parata, told Parliament that: "Maritime New Zealand is responsible for ensuring New Zealand is prepared for, and able to respond to, marine oil spills ... New Zealand has equipment and other stores strategically located around New Zealand ... The plan is responsive and is regularly evaluated to ensure it meets changing risk profiles''. Such bureaucratese, while it may have sounded soothing to some in April, sounds pretty hollow now.

While Maritime New Zealand's response might have been better, it is apparent to all that once a significant amount of oil enters the sea, there is nothing that can be humanly done to prevent a disaster. No country, however big, no matter what their means or technologies, can put the genie back in the bottle once a major marine oil spill is underway. Even the United States, which was able to mobilise more than 6000 ships to help in the attempted clean-up of the Gulf of Mexico, wasn't able to save wildlife and livelihoods. The Minister's regular claims that regulations can prevent spills, again seem of little value, given the huge reminder sitting atop that Astrolabe Reef that human error has no respect for the statute books.

Last week, the Texan oil giant Anadarko began a survey of the deep water off the West Coast of the North Island. This is just one of many areas off New Zealand's coasts where deep sea oil drilling could soon be happening. According to Statistics NZ, 65 per cent of New Zealanders live within five kilometres of the coast. This means that a huge proportion of the population could wake up with tonnes of toxic oil washing up, not far from their doorsteps, if the industry's plans go ahead.

Anadarko's oil survey will include waters up to 1600 metres deep. This shows what may seem like a surprising bullishness on the company's part. This week the news broke that Anadarko has agreed to pay BP $5.5 billion, in a legal settlement over the liabilities from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Andarko owned a 25 per cent stake in the well. Given that the Horizon was drilling in 1500 metres _ shallower than the water Anadarko may be drilling in off the West Coast _ would it not seem a risky move for the company?

Perhaps not, when you consider that it is never the oil industry that suffers the most after a spill. If one of Anadarko's exploratory wells did start to leak, it would be Maui's dolphin (of which there are less than 150), the world-famous surf break at Raglan, West Coast fishermen, our tourism industry and New Zealand's clean and green image, that would bare the direct consequences. In turn, all those businesses that depend on New Zealand's brand, including those that sell food, and beverages overseas, would be affected..

Even if luck was on our side, and there never was a spill, the setting up of the new frontiers of oil exploration - in the deep waters off our coasts, and in the Arctic - will only make the climate crisis worse.

Rather than spending millions on trying to attract the world's deep water oil industry to New Zealand, the Government would be far better working to encourage the development of renewable energy technologies.

There is now a huge global demand for so called "cleantech'' energy solutions; catering to even a fraction of that business would be far more lucrative than deep oil drilling.

After the Rena story is over, there will no doubt be an inquiry, and plenty of talk of "learnings'' having been taken from the incident. The Government will probably buy Maritime NZ a boat or three. But the greatest lesson of all will be that when it comes to oil spills, prevention is far better than the cure.
* Simon Boxer is a Senior Climate Campaigner with Greenpeace New Zealand.

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