David Clendon

A precautionary tale

by David Clendon

Following is an extract from Hansard, recording an exchange I had with energy Minister Hekia Parata back in April.  The question was asked at a time when iwi, hapu, environmental groups and others were trying to persuade the government that issuing permits for deep water drilling is a bad idea.

David Clendon: What is the Government’s contingency plan if there is a catastrophic oil spill or leak resulting from exploratory drilling?

Hon HEKIA PARATA: Maritime New Zealand is responsible for ensuring that New Zealand is prepared for, and able to respond to, marine oil spills. The Marine Pollution Response Service consists of internationally respected experts, who manage and train a team of about 400 local, Government, and Maritime New Zealand responders.

I didn’t find that particularly reassuring at the time, and find it much less so now given what is happening off Tauranga. We know some smart and dedicated people, both professionals and volunteers,  are working desperately hard trying to avert a major disaster, but so far we have seen just how little capacity we have to manage an accident.

Nobody ever wants an oil spill anywhere in the marine environment, but in terms of acccess and ability to respond,  the location and timing of this spill could have been a great deal worse.  The vessel ran aground on a reef scarcely 20km from Tauranga, one of our largest, busiest and most modern ports.  It occurred in calm weather, and was known about almost immediately. Yet we have still struggled to bring together the necessary expertise and hardware to deal quickly  with the crisis.

How much worse would the situation be if we were to allow deepwater off shore drilling, which the Energy Minister and her government are so eager to do, and an accident occurred a long way offshore in foul weather.

The American response to the Gulf of Mexico disaster involved hundreds of vessels, and many thousands of  military, civilian and volunteer personnel.  It also required a second rig to drill the relief well that ultimately enabled the stemming of the oil flow into the waters of the Gulf.

New Zealand does not and will never have that sort of capacity.  The oil companies will resist having to take responsibility to provide it.

There will always be accidents at sea that threaten our coastlines, wildlife and the livelihoods of people who rely on the marine resource.  We need to continually assess and reassess the risks of such accidents and put in place appropriate safeguards and countermeasures.

To knowingly invite and even encourage deep water drilling, an activity that we know is highly likely to cause problems entirely beyond our ability to resolve them, would be reckless in the extreme.  I hope that the reality of having to deal with the Rena incident will cause the government to think again about our energy future in the interests of our environmental and economic wellbeing.

Published in Environment & Resource Management | Health & Wellbeing by David Clendon on Mon, October 10th, 2011   

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