by Gareth Hughes
Recently Anadarko’s drillship, the Noble Bob Douglas, arrived in New Zealand waters to drill our deepest ever oil well, and to serve as a graphic reminder of the risks New Zealand faces from a deep sea oil spill.
I remember watching the Deepwater Horizon oil spill unfold on television and seeing the images of devastated beaches, dying birds and burning oil but it was New Zealand’s own Rena oil spill that made the threat of a large oil spill tangible and real. Watching Maritime New Zealand struggle with the spill and volunteers picking up oil; dead birds washing up on the shore along with closed beaches and closed shops; oil on our beaches wasn’t academic anymore, it wasn’t something you just saw on TV, oil on New Zealand beaches was real – you could see it, you could touch it, you could smell it.
And at the same time as Kiwis volunteers were cleaning birds and beaches we saw the Government rolling out the red carpet to deep sea oil drillers like Texas-based Anadarko. The spectre of oil washing up on our beaches again is why I’m opposed to deep sea drilling in New Zealand’s waters. The Rena and Deepwater Horizon spills were warnings yet the Government seeks to do all it can to encourage risky deep sea oil drilling.
Deep sea drilling is operating at the frontiers of technology, geography and geology. At a depth of 1500 metres it is pitch black, the water is close to freezing and the oil that comes out of the ground is nearly boiling. At that depth the pressure would crush a person in an instant and even the metal piping must be specially reinforced because normal piping would burst under its own weight. Advanced robots and submersibles are needed for normal operation and dealing with any issues are all the more complex because of the extreme conditions. New Zealand’s isolation means that if a spill occurred assistance and equipment would take a long time to arrive, meanwhile we would have oil polluting our environment, killing our wildlife and washing up on our beaches.
No one ever wants an oil spill but accidents can happen as we all saw when BP and Anadarko’s Deepwater Horizon rig had a catastrophic blow out and we’ve seen others around the world. Looking at Gulf of Mexico oil spill data from the U.S. Bureau of safety and Environmental Enforcement the risks of a spill increase with drilling depth the risks of a spill from an ultra-deep well at 1.5km depth is one in nineteen. The New Zealand Government talks about ‘world-class’ regulation but Anadarko did not even need a formal consent to drill this summer under transitional provisions of the Government’s new Exclusive Economic Zone Act.
While a blow out and oil spill is a low probability event, if it did occur New Zealand is woefully unprepared if we have a spill in deep water. Maritime New Zealand doesn’t have even remotely the same resources that the U.S. Government had to respond to the Deepwater Horizon spill. They had 48,200 people who responded to the Gulf of Mexico spill yet currently New Zealand has approximately 400 regional responders trained to respond to spills, 60 of these are National Response Team personnel who have been trained to a higher level. The U.S. had thousands of vessels involved in the spill response yet we have only 3 boats, called skimmers about the size of dingies which would struggle in the 8m waves that sometime batter the proposed drilling location. The Gulf disaster leaked over 600,000 tonnes of oil into the ocean, but Maritime New Zealand has nominated only 5,500 tonnes as the capacity it should be able to respond to, and was frankly stretched dealing with only 300 tonnes from the Rena. Looking at the economics of deep sea oil drilling the risks don’t outweigh the benefits. The New Zealand royalty plus tax rate for oil is 4th lowest in the world the Government’s own reports predict 90% of the profits will go offshore. The industry is jobs poor and it is unlikely many, if any Kiwis will be employed on Anadarko’s specialist drill ship. According to Statistics New Zealand, the mining sector including oil and gas employs just 3,000 people, whereas in contrast over the last four years, nearly 40,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost. On the flip side, a spill could lead to unemployment for the tens of thousands of Kiwis working in the tourism, fisheries and aquaculture industries and others who trade on New Zealand’s clean green brand. The Gulf of Mexico spill alone has cost more than $40 billion yet the Government only requires insurance of $30m and the maximum corporate penalty for cases of negligence is $10m. New Zealand faces all the environmental and economic risks of a deep sea oil spill yet we will see hardly any jobs, hardly any taxes, hardly any royalties and almost all of the profits will flow offshore.
The smarter alternative to risky deep sea oil drilling would be to look to strengths and focus on clean energy and protecting our valuable ‘100% Pure’ brand. The Pure Advantage group of successful business people say there is a $6 trillion clean energy, green tech opportunity we are at risk of missing a slice of. Price Waterhouse Coopers say New Zealand has a potential $22b annual opportunity in clean energy and research shows there are many more jobs created in clean energy than in oil. New Zealand’s future isn’t in hoping someone finds oil deep in our waters and they don’t leave too much of a mess as they export the profits offshore; New Zealand’s future is in clean energy which will deliver a richer New Zealand.