At sea with 'Anadarko amendment'

20:28, Apr 10 2013

People may say print is dead, but every journalist still wants to be on the front page.

My professional apogee was a page 1 splash in The Australian in August 1995, after France announced it still wanted to use the South Pacific to practise letting off nuclear bombs.

As the New Zealand correspondent for Australia's national daily newspaper, I'd lucked into being on the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior on the very night French president Jacques Chirac announced France's intention to conduct more test explosions at Mururoa Atoll.

Unlike a decade earlier, when Canberra was busy tut-tutting New Zealand for its anti-nuclear stance, public reaction in Australia was intense and angry.

Some 100 members of Parliament started searching for a ship to carry them to the distant Tahitian atoll to protest.

After scouring trans-Tasman ports, they settled on a top-heavy, flat-bottomed tub designed for cruising the inland waters of the Murray River, belonging to a couple of Hawke's Bay nightclub owners. Neither had crewed on the MV Explorer's delivery voyage from Australia to New Zealand, saying they didn't "feel comfortable" making the passage.


No kidding.

The Tasman is one of the stormiest oceans on the globe and their ship was rumoured to be so unstable that they hired ballast to place in the bilge every time it went into Auckland's Hauraki Gulf.

Pretty quickly, the Aussie politicians called the whole thing off, although not before The Australian's cartoonist had depicted then prime minister Paul Keating contemplating the loss at sea of 100 political opponents and half the press gallery.

Some years later, working for an energy company, I was involved in site selection for a liquefied natural gas import terminal on the Taranaki coast, which the engineers who assessed the sites said was one of the world's most challenging marine environments.

Both events came to mind after Energy and Resources Minister Simon Bridges announced a new 500-metre exclusion zone and heavy penalties for protest boats getting close to offshore oil rigs in the 200-nautical-mile (370km) Exclusive Economic Zone. Maritime exclusion zones already operate around oil rigs inside the 12-mile nautical limit.

But the penalty for a breach is a piddly $1000 fine. Damaging or interfering with an offshore rig under the new legislation, slipped at the last minute into the revised Crown Minerals Act, will carry up to 12 months in prison and a fine of up to $50,000.

Just entering the zone will attract a fine of up to $10,000.

Clearly, the Government just upped the stakes with the anti- deep-sea-extraction lobby, who must be positively salivating at the range of options emerging for offshore protest, with ocean floor mining of ironsands and phosphate on the cards in the next few years, let alone deep sea oil exploration.

What's less clear is whether the Government is deliberately picking a fight with its heavy-handed tactics, or is simply reacting to pressure from the oil industry.

Shell, for example, suffered international indignity when TV star and Greenpeace activist Lucy Lawless spent three nights holed up atop a drilling derrick on one of its ships in February last year.

The wet-bus-ticket slap handed out by the courts was a further blow, along with the rejection of Shell's $600,000 compensation claim.

Anadarko, which was a silent partner in BP's Gulf of Mexico oil rig disaster in 2010, is equally nervous it could be targeted.

By introducing the amendments as a supplementary order paper, Bridges has ensured maximum opprobrium, since it avoids select committee scrutiny. It will be rammed through Parliament quickly, and the green lobby is making hay by claiming both that the new rules stifle democratic rights to protest and that they show a Government kowtowing to Big Oil.

Taking to the ocean in small craft is inherently risky. Slopping around far out to sea off the West Coast of New Zealand is downright dangerous.

For all the faults pinned on it, the oil industry prizes health and safety more highly than almost any global industry. The Government's post-Pike River health and safety taskforce is chaired by Shell's New Zealand chairman, Rob Jager.

New Zealanders have a history of derring-do protests at sea, and the opening of the EEZ is an invitation for the next generation of such activists.

But if there's no sanction on what people can get up to out there, the risk of death and injury is very high.

The combination of deep, rough ocean, small protest boats and oil rigs is potentially deadly. Protesters may be willing to put their bodies on the line, but the law is right to recognise the risk.