New Zealand at risk of becoming the next oil exploration frontier


The Ecologist  Rachael Shaw      6th November 2013

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.

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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 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.