Troubled waters over oil

17:00, May 28 2011
Protesters against deep-sea oil drilling cover themselves with fake oil at Moeraki Boulders on May 15.
MESSY BUSINESS: Protesters against deep-sea oil drilling cover themselves with fake oil at Moeraki Boulders on May 15.

Greenpeace is predicting more angry protests as the public wakes up to the amount of oil exploration planned in coming years.

This year there have been significant protests against Petrobras exploring in the Raukumara Basin, and last week opposition increased against Australian mining company Greywolf NL's plans to explore the seabed for oil offshore of the Abel Tasman National Park.

This week, the Star-Times investigates the state of oil exploration in New Zealand and discovered a country pockmarked with petroleum exploration permits – and brand new applications over some of our most pristine and tourism-dependent environments.

Punakaiki. Te Anau. Kaikoura. They're all in, or near, the areas covered by the 10 new permit applications received this year  - three in the past fortnight alone.

And famous beaches, including Piha and Ninety Mile beach, adjoin the area of ocean where the government has offered up two "block offers" to prospectors.

Bids closed in August, but neither the bidders nor winners have been revealed. Hekia Parata, acting energy and resources minister, said "there has been some very substantial assessment going on".

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Greenpeace campaigner Simon Boxer told the Star-Times: "I think the rest of the world looks at us and wonders what the hell we are playing at."

He predicts local opposition will increase "when a good third of the population is going to see this right off their coast".

In 2006, 18 petroleum exploration permits were granted; in 2007, there were 21; 15 in 2008 and 11 in each of the past two years.

In total, there are 70 granted petroleum exploration permits, and 23 more applications pending.

WHAT LIES BENEATH

A briefing paper released by Greenpeace a week ago, cites Investment New Zealand research showing 250 local organisations involved in researching, developing and commercialising "clean" technologies. It's believed 60 of these companies are potentially world class – and there is potential to create a $150 billion high-value low-carbon export economy by 2025.

"The big fear is this isn't a window that is going to be open for that long, and there are many competitors out there who are starting to win big contracts," says Boxer.

"Here's this massive opportunity to shift the economy for a long-term leadership role and they just can't seem to see it."

CAN WE have our cake and eat it too? Boxer says spending money on fossil fuels strips jobs and economic growth from the cleantech sector.

"It's not an either/or situation," argues Parata. "It's an and/and approach... renewables are a significant part of our portfolio."

She says government is "dedicated to working towards a low carbon future, but the fact is fossil fuels are going to be part of the world's future as we transition".

Last year's study by Venture Taranaki found the oil and gas industry directly employed the equivalent of 3730 people and, in 2009, contributed $1.9b to the New Zealand economy.

"Taranaki has been our longstanding domestic experience of this industry," says Parata. "We know from the seismic mapping that's been invested in by previous governments, including ours, that there's a larger mineral and gas resource out there and need to have the capacity and capability to properly assess how that potential might be realised."

Parata says in the exploration phase, like that recently initiated in the Raukumara Basin by Brazilian company Petrobras, little money is earned, "other than the fees paid for permits". (Companies interested in the Northland and Reinga offers, for example, were required to pay an initial fee of $6000 per contested block.)

"Companies are bearing the cost of the research," says Parata, "so in that stage of the process, there is little direct revenue."

She says people should understand it's an industry that works on "very long time lines".

Petrobras's exploration permit expires in 2015. Last month, it completed the first stage of its seismic surveying programme – after police and the navy were called in to monitor protest action by Greenpeace and local iwi. Parata says if there was drilling potential, and an extraction permit granted, "that could be another 10 to 15 years away".

"In Taranaki, the first well was drilled in 1864. We've been moving incrementally."

'DRILL BABY, DRILL!'

That's the opinion from one of the 661 respondents to a Sunday Star-Times "hot topic" poll on petroleum exploration. Some 71% supported exploration for oil and gas off New Zealand's coast, and improved knowledge of our petroleum basins. But the majority (69%) also felt government's energy strategy should focus on developing renewable energy sources over petroleum and mineral fuels. The respondents, drawn from a nationwide panel of more than 2700 Sunday newspaper readers, broadly supported fossil fuel energy use now, and the use of renewables into the future. Said one reader: "The answer to power needs is the immediate increase in renewable sources of energy – wind, tidal and solar power, and moves should be made without delay to develop these and make them more affordable. In the interim we need to use oil and gas fields but with complete concern for the environment."

Sunday Star Times