Deep-sea exploration

A sperm whale lifts its tail during its migration up the east coast of the South Island.  Kaikoura residents are concerned that seismic testing for oil exploration will confuse the whales and scare them off.
A sperm whale lifts its tail during its migration up the east coast of the South Island. Kaikoura residents are concerned that seismic testing for oil exploration will confuse the whales and scare them off.

Kaikoura-based reporter Emma Dangerfield summarises the concerns among the community about impending oil exploration in the seas that provide them with kaimoana and income. 

The community of Kaikoura is almost totally reliant on tourism for its survival, yet that could all be in jeopardy with the arrival of oil giant Anadarko and its exploration programme for the Pegasus Basin.

The worst-case scenario is that Kaikoura as we know it is destroyed by an oil spill. At best, Kaikoura would live in fear of that spill becoming a reality.

Whale Watch Kaikoura and Encounter Kaikoura, along with many other tourism operators in the district, have voiced their concerns on numerous occasions. Coastal guardian group Te Korowai o Te Tai o Marokura - which is made up of representatives from the commercial and recreational fisheries as well as Forest and Bird, boating clubs and local tourism operators - is worried about the impact on marine life from seismic testing and drilling activity.

Te Runanga o Kaikoura agrees the risk to the environment is too great, and the Kaikoura District Council has made submissions to the Government at each step of the process.

Yet the community continues to feel it is not being listened to.

And it's not just the greenies who are getting hot under the collar.

As TV3 news show host John Campbell pointed out in his now-famous interview with Energy and Resources Minister Simon Bridges, Kaikoura is a safe National stronghold yet the majority vote on this policy is a big "no" for the Government.

School groups in the Kaikoura area have waded into the argument and campaign group NoDrill Kaikoura, which was set up in response to the Government's drilling plans, has close to 3500 followers on Facebook.

Of course you can still find people in Kaikoura who are not opposed to drilling off their coast. Plenty are happy to point out the benefits of oil, the need for it in our cars and the hypocrisy that anyone owning one should stand opposed to Anadarko.

But let's be clear that the debate in Kaikoura is about deep-sea to ultra-deep-sea oil exploration. Risk of incident increases with depth of well, and some residents are genuinely fearful because of the proposed drilling depths of up to 2750m in the Pegasus Basin.

Most of those unhappy about deep-sea drilling are still comfortable with using oil from other, less risky, sources.

Then there are those who believe New Zealand could go one step further still: take the alternative energy approach, lead the rest of the world and align more with the country's clean green image and tourism market.

As pointed out to government agencies at a public meeting in Kaikoura last month , the town is proud of its Earth Check status and is at the forefront of many good practices, including its work on waste minimisation and recycling.

A large and growing number of people in Kaikoura are tuned in to the deep-sea oil issue; indeed, many have been following it with interest since late 2011.

But although they are as well-informed as possible, they are still discovering new information all the time. Last week they found out exploratory drilling work under way off the North Island coast is being sub-contracted to Noble, adding to doubts about Anadarko's accountability in the event of an incident.

They have also learned that Kaikoura's marine mammal population is at risk of harm from seismic testing, with little reliable data available about measures to protect the whales.

Whale Watch Kaikoura is not happy about the Government's intent to forge ahead and believes there should be no seismic surveying done until someone has done independent research on the effects on marine mammals.

In spite of this, surveying is due to start in the coming weeks .

The only consolation for Whale Watch is DOC's code of conduct, and while this is considered world-leading, the department itself concedes the science around the impact on marine mammals is still being developed.

The code of conduct as a set of guidelines does not satisfy Whale Watch but seems to be the best DOC can offer while seismic surveys continue to be a permitted activity within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Whale Watch chief operating officer Kauahi Ngapora says neither he nor the rest of the community is buying the regurgitated statements offered by officials at meetings held during the past year or more. Statements which include "best practice", "prevention is key", and that a spill was "highly unlikely" were a far cry from the detailed assurances being called for.

Exploratory drilling started off the Raglan coast last week, yet neither the oil company's spill response plan nor discharge management plan have been made available to the public.

News like this does little to reassure the public, least of all in Kaikoura, where this is the latest in the string of let-downs.

Government officials deny that Phil Heatley gave any sort of assurance to the Kaikoura community in 2012 when he was energy minister.

The residents remember him saying that all drilling, including exploratory, would be publicly notified. It appears this may not now be the case.

Various meetings organised with government agency officials have been postponed, cancelled and amended, adding to the sense of frustration and mistrust felt by the community.

In a town so dependent on its tourism value, people are appalled by Tourism Minister John Key's apparent disregard for the sector while as prime minister he approves off-shore oil programmes. This is seen as a full-on conflict - tourism has everything to lose from off-shore drilling, and nothing to gain.

The country will undoubtedly benefit, through infrastructure such as roads and hospitals, but Kaikoura is unlikely to see a dramatic difference, and even more unlikely to witness an increase in eco-tourists as a result of oil rigs squatting in the water off the spectacular east coast.

The Marlborough Express