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Wading into strife

HAMISH MACLEAN
Last updated 05:00 14/11/2012
Far North coast

OFFSHORE: The Far North’s west coast is too precious a resource to risk oil washing up on our beaches, conservationists say.

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The government's promotion of areas for off-shore oil exploration, including a large chunk of Northland's west coast, has conservationists concerned.

Forest & Bird Far North chairman Dean Baigent-Mercer says the Government is talking about economic gains but the risks to Northland's economy and environment are not being discussed with people.

"The Government has been really clear that the public has been cut out of the process," he says.

Mr Baigent-Mercer says talks to be held between the Government, councils and Maori leaders does not constitute public consultation.

"This is all about government forming relationships with multi-national companies and seducing them here - while we all wear the risk.

"And the risk is huge to our economy and our environment, to the beaches we know and love, to fishing grounds, to places that need to be protected."

Whangarei MP and Minister of Energy and Resources Phil Heatley focuses on responsible exploration for deep sea oil and the economic benefits the Government is promoting.

He says existing oil and gas operations in Taranaki contribute $2 billion to New Zealand's gross domestic product and support more than 5000 jobs in the region.

New Zealand's share of annual revenue from the Taranaki operations is typically $400 million in royalties and $300m in company tax, he says.

And Mr Heatley says Northland could be in a position to do much better.

The coming year will be the second in which the Government uses a block offer annual competitive tender process to allocate permits for oil and gas exploration.

Block offers replaced the first come, first served process used in previous years.

Block Offer 2013 includes a proposed exploration area totalling 53,747 square kilometres over the Northland and Reinga basins. The Reinga Basin is New Zealand's most prospective frontier basin, a GNS Science report says.

The focus will be on attracting responsible explorers able to assist with building knowledge of the resource potential of the area, Mr Heatley says.

Greenpeace views deep sea oil drilling as a highly risky activity with exploration being the riskiest phase. And it has not been placated by the Government's intention of seeking responsible outfits to do the work.

Steve Abel from Greenpeace says he is opposed to any deep sea oil drilling in New Zealand.

Mr Abel says the Government is jeopardising the integrity of the resource management act by making it "as easy as possible" for the oil sector to enter New Zealand waters.

"The jobs in the oil sector are minuscule compared with the jobs that are dependent on the lack of oil washing up on our beaches," he says.

He says the cost of a potential clean-up could cripple the economy.

"It's a frontier technology and it's much more risky than shallow water drilling," Mr Abel says.

"Once you get below a certain depth, you can't send a diver down if anything goes wrong.

"We're right on the edge of human technological capability - that's why it's a frontier, exploratory business."

Northland MP Mike Sabin has said he supports "safe, responsible oil and gas development" and says this type of potential growth is the kind of development that ought to be a priority for Northland communities.

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