Head to head: Greenies v oil industry
The environmental disaster caused by the grounding of the Rena in the Bay of Plenty has caused strong debate within New Zealand. Here, two major players put their cases forward.
Forest & Bird says . . . NZ has too much at stake
A halt should be called to deep-sea oil drilling until the lessons of the Rena oil disaster have been learned, writes Forest & Bird North Island conservation manager Mark Bellingham.
The unfolding Rena oil disaster is teaching New Zealanders a bitter lesson. We now know our capacity in a shipping accident to stop oil from getting into our seas is very limited.
We also know that once the oil is in the sea, there is little we can do to prevent it from devastating the marine environment.
Compared with the world's worst oil disasters, the Rena spill is relatively small. Two weeks after the container ship hit Astrolabe Reef off Tauranga on October 5, most of Rena's 1700 tonnes of oil remained on the ship.
But already the oil-covered bodies of nearly 1300 birds have been washed up on Bay of Plenty beaches and thousands more are sure to have sunk without trace. Months or years are likely to pass before the full effects on the birds, marine mammals, environment and the people of the region are understood.
This destruction is why Forest & Bird called last week for a moratorium on deep-sea oil drilling until a full inquiry into the accident is held and its recommendations are implemented. New Zealand must also greatly improve its ability to respond to shipping accidents.
Prime Minister John Key said last week there was no connection between the Rena oil disaster and the Government's enthusiastic promotion of deep-sea drilling for oil and gas. Forest & Bird disagrees. Our near helplessness in the face of oil spills at sea and the evidence of their destructive effects are proof that we must be cautious. After two weeks, the impact of even this relatively small spill had been felt as far away as East Cape, an important feeding area for many species of seabirds. In the Bay of Plenty, seals and shorebirds have already been affected and fears are held for other marine mammals, including whales and dolphins, as well as other sea life.
The impact of a major spill from a drilling platform would be horrific. In last year's Gulf of Mexico disaster, up to 627,000 tonnes of oil were estimated to have poured into the sea.
More oil tankers would be in our seas if oil production was increased. In the past 35 years, there have been at least 10 massive oil tanker accidents worldwide, each of which spewed 100,000 tonnes or more of oil into the sea, along with dozens of others that dwarf the Rena spill.
New Zealand's marine environment is one of the world's richest and most pristine. Our country is known as the seabird capital of the world and of the 84 species that breed here, almost half breed nowhere else. Sadly, the oil spill has coincided with the breeding season for many seabird and shorebird species in the region.
The human and economic impact is also a tragedy for the Bay of Plenty. We have all seen the shock suffered by residents and others who treasure the region's beautiful beaches and waters for sport, harvesting food or for their livelihood. Coming just ahead of the summer high season, these impacts are yet to be fully revealed.
Already the Rena disaster should have taught us we must minimise any risks from deep-sea oil and gas drilling and improve our ability to respond to shipping accidents.
Brazilian company Petrobas was last year awarded a permit for exploration in an area off East Cape, an important feeding area for seabirds and other marine life.
The Government recently introduced legislation aimed at managing future environmental risks in the exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 nautical miles from land. Minister for the Environment Nick Smith claims the legislation will be an effective tool for managing any future risks posed by offshore oil drilling.
While Forest & Bird welcomes resource management legislation in an area previously lacking safeguards, it offers no guarantee against future oil spills and appears to be aimed at encouraging oil and gas drilling.
The legislation offers less protection and less emphasis on environmental considerations than is provided for the land and sea out to 12 nautical miles under the Resource Management Act.
The Rena grounding raises serious questions over whether New Zealand can effectively deal with an inshore oil spill, let alone one offshore.
Too much is at stake to rush into deep-sea oil drilling in our fragile marine environment. We showed last year we didn't want mining on our precious natural places on land and now we are facing the same issues in the sea.
The oil industry says . . . Moratorium not needed
The Rena disaster has nothing to do with the safety of offshore petroleum drilling, writes John Pfahlert , executive officer of the Petroleum Exploration and Production Association.
The grounding of the Rena has seen Opposition politicians and Green groups calling for a moratorium on offshore petroleum drilling, until such time as environmental safeguards are in place to stop any disaster occurring.
Some would like a permanent stop to exploration, because they argue the risks of a spill are too high or because they are simply opposed to fossil fuels.
Are such calls warranted? No, because the companies active in New Zealand already operate to the highest standards when it comes to safety and environmental protection and the regulatory regime is well on its way to matching that commitment.
While the oil industry understands public disquiet over oil spill preparedness, whether as a result of the Rena stranding or the Gulf of Mexico BP calamity last year, such concern needs to be balanced with accurate information.
Let's start with our track record. In 40 years of offshore operations there have been two small discharges of oily water from offshore production facilities, neither of which caused lasting damage. There has never been a spill in New Zealand from offshore drilling activities.
One of the main reasons we can boast such a record is that a huge amount of preparation and planning goes into the execution of drilling activity, to make sure spills do not occur.
In other words, the difference is between the risk of an oil spill, which is very low, and the consequences should one occur. Oil spill response, while critically important, is very much the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. Making sure there is no incident in the first place is paramount.
SINCE the Gulf of Mexico disaster last year, government officials and the industry have been doing considerable work to learn from the causes of that disaster and ensure we have a regulatory system that provides safeguards matched to New Zealand- specific conditions.
It is possible to reap the economic benefits of oil and gas production and have a clean green environment. Both the standards we set for ourselves and those imposed by the Government are designed to reduce the risk of accidents. Their elimination is impossible. The task of Government is to decide where to set the bar.
The Labour Department has issued a new interim offshore drilling safety rule, to ensure that oversight of drilling plans and activities meets the highest international standards.
Officials have begun the development of new offshore drilling regulations that will place New Zealand at the forefront of health and safety regulatory management.
Environment Minister Nick Smith has introduced a bill that deals with the consideration of environmental effects in the exclusive economic zone and extended continental shelf. If enacted in 2012, it would require exploration companies to seek RMA-type consents for drilling activities.
Applications will be publicly notified and public submissions called for. Public hearings will be held if requested by submitters.
The Crown Minerals Act and the Minerals Programme for Petroleum require that exploration permits only be awarded to companies meeting stringent technical and financial capability requirements - hence the refusal by the minister of energy and resources to grant a permit this year to Greywolf (the obscure Australian mining company that wanted to explore for oil and minerals off Golden Bay).
The minister plans to release a public discussion paper in December proposing changes to the Crown Minerals Act and Minerals Programme for Petroleum, which will detail changes to the system of allocating exploration permits to explorers, and review existing processes for community and iwi consultation.
Maritime NZ has just reviewed its risk assessments and updated the National Oil Spill Response Plan. The risk assessment highlighted again the greatest risk to our marine environment is posed by shipping, not offshore oil and gas exploration. The Rena has, sadly, proven its point.
While the environmental effects from Rena are abhorrent to us all, no-one has called for a ban on shipping as a result of one ship ploughing into a reef. As a trading nation, such a ban would cripple us.
The call for a moratorium on deep sea drilling needs to be seen for what it is - a misguided reaction that would penalise an unrelated activity and put hundreds of jobs and billions of dollars of potential Crown revenue at risk.
The Dominion Post