It could be our ticket to wealth and security. It could destroy what we already have.
Late next year or in the first settled summery months of 2014, US oil company Anadarko will sink a deepwater well more than 150 kilometres off Taranaki's coast.
This single well in 1500 metres of water is a new frontier for the country and could be the beginning of an oil bonanza, tapping into billions of barrels of oil believed trapped beneath the sediment of New Zealand's massive exclusive economic zone. With each of those barrels would come royalties and taxes to build schools, roads, security and prosperity.
This single well could also be the beginning of a road that ends in disaster, an out-of-control oil well staining the country's shores and billion-dollar clean green image a foul-smelling black.
"We know that it's challenging," Anadarko's New Zealand spokesman Alan Seay says of the company's Taranaki Deepwater Basin aspirations.
"Everybody has the events of Gulf of Mexico in their mind. The wells we are drilling in New Zealand are different in character and nature. They have none of the temperature and pressure issues of those in the Gulf. The engineers tell me the wells we have to drill are very straightforward."
Straightforward they may be, but the drilling off Taranaki's coast will be carried out in the wilds of the Tasman Sea, in what Seay describes as "challenging" conditions where maximum and average significant wave heights are 6.7 metres and 2.2m respectively.
In recognition of that Anadarko will use the hi-tech and benignly named drill ship Noble Bob Douglas, which is under construction in Korea. If all goes to plan its first two deepwater wells will be drilled off Canterbury's coast in search of gas before it turns its attention north to the Deepwater Taranaki Basin and its promise of oil.
The project has been in the pipeline for a decade and it will take a further decade to develop the fields if anything is found.
But the wells are the opening salvo in a fresh push from the Government to expand the oil and gas industry. Next month exploration rights for a further 23 onshore and offshore blocks are up for tender. More will follow and many of those blocks, which could potentially reap the country billions in royalties, will require wells drilled in more than 1000m of water.
And though they will be out of sight, the grim pictures of catastrophic ecological destruction following the deepwater well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago mean the wells will never be out of mind. Just as it will not be forgotten that Anadarko was inextricably linked to the Deepwater Horizon disaster through its 25 per cent silent share in the doomed rig.
If it all goes wrong here, the distance from shore means Maritime New Zealand will take charge of any cleanup, says response planning officer Dayne Maxwell.
How they tackle an incident will be helped by a response plan and trajectory models of where any possible spills might go, which was submitted by the oil company prior to drilling.
"Primarily their main role is to stop the oil at source. We deal with the oil on the water and if it gets to shore," Maxwell says.
With the Tasman renowned as a wild sea and the distance from shore the wells are likely to be, the country's first and main response to a spill in the Deepwater Taranaki Basin will be dispersants sprayed on the oil to break it up. Helicopters will likely make the first attacks, followed by boats. Skimming the oil from the surface is likely to be impractical.
"The distance of the well from shore, the sea and wind conditions and the type of oil coming from a well all determine whether a spill would make it to shore," Maxwell says. "Offshore winds might push the oil into the Tasman, rough seas might help break the oil down and if it's light crude it would break down more quickly than heavy crude."
Green Party energy spokesman Gareth Hughes doesn't want the country to ever be in a position that it needs to know current directions, wind speeds and swell conditions and what they will mean for a large oil spill.
He sees the Government's rush to exploit the deepwater resources as flawed and its royalty clawback a pittance in the face of such pollution risks.
A spill here harms more than marine and bird life; it also impacts on the country's "$20 billion" image as a pristine environment and New Zealanders' concept of what they want their country to be, he says.
"The Rena showed oil on our beaches and in our oceans isn't academic any more."
Under the Green Party drilling would be limited to depths of 200m and focus would turn to developing clean energy technologies, where Hughes says the "smart money" is already going.
But the easy money, the annual $700 million a year in oil and gas taxes and royalties, has already arrived in the state's coffers and it's hungry for more.
Last year the government-commissioned Woodward report outlined a potential $9.5b extra in government revenue if exploration increased by 50 per cent in the next 10 years, and last week Energy Minister Phil Heatley enthusiastically backed the industry.
"We love what you're doing. We love how you're doing it," he gushed to beaming delegates sitting beneath a mirrored ceiling at the 2012 New Zealand Petroleum Summit in Wellington.
Petroleum Exploration and Production Association of New Zealand chief executive David Robinson wants oil and gas resources exploited now because of, not in spite of, his view that oil and gas is a "transitional fuel" in the move to renewables like solar, wind and geothermal.
"Renewables are not growing fast enough right now to replace oil and gas in the short term. So demand will continue for 50 or 60 years, but after that these renewable technologies will have a much greater presence globally," he says.
"The reality is if we have got oil and gas reserves we should be using them. They will be superseded. If you don't use it now it could be obsolete energy."
Accidents leading to major oil spills are aberrations, albeit aberrations with often sickening and expensive consequences. From next year the world's nine largest oil companies will co-operate to have the latest well-capping equipment warehoused in four central locations around the globe.
For a moderate fee it will be made available to all oil and gas companies which could usually not afford such technology.
"Our guiding principle is prevention," Robinson says. "But we still have an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff."
- © Fairfax NZ News