Energy industry accused of 'buying friends'

Last updated 05:00 14/11/2012

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A prominent climate campaign group has caused outrage by accusing the oil and gas industry of "buying" the people of Taranaki by financially supporting schools, community groups and public events.

The accusation comes from Climate Justice Taranaki, which claims instead of being more transparent in its drilling operations, the industry is using donations and sponsorships to buy so-called social licence to operate.

That has sparked an indignant response from oil and gas companies, which each year hand over millions of dollars in sponsorships and donations to organisations and initiatives ranging from Womad and the coming Len Lye Centre, to the Taranaki Rugby Union and its representative squad, to educational scholarships and school sports.

The companies say they are not "buying" anything - the only reason they have sponsorship budgets is so they can be good corporate members of the Taranaki community. "That's ridiculous - an absolutely cynical thing to say," Dennis Washer, the New Plymouth-based New Zealand general manager with oil exploration company AWE, said.

"Our policy - and we have it on our office walls - is that our fundamental aim is to leave any local community in better shape after we have conducted exploration and development. That's what we've signed off on, and that's the aim we're sticking to."

Tag Oil, whose sponsorships include the Taranaki rugby team, said all it was trying to be was a good citizen.

"That's what irks me about these guys - you can't win. If you don't do anything you're criticised, and if you do try to help you're accused of trying to buy goodwill," chief operating officer Drew Cadenhead said, adding that every year his company received thousands of requests for sponsorships and donations.

"We're not trying to buy anything. We're trying to be supportive of the communities we are active in. That's why, for instance, we've just funded a scholarship for a Stratford student to study engineering."

One of the major recipients of energy industry philanthropy accused Climate Justice Taranaki of being naive. The Taranaki Arts Festival Trust runs the annual Womad festival, which has as its two major sponsors Todd Energy and Shell New Zealand.

Chief executive Suzanne Porter said the festival wouldn't exist if it were not for that.

"In fact Taranaki would be a much poorer place both economically and culturally if it wasn't for the energy industry," she said.

Climate Justice Taranaki has made the accusation in its submission to the parliamentary commissioner for the environment's investigation into fracking in New Zealand, the results of which are due for release in a fortnight.

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Yesterday, it was repeated by CJT researcher Catherine Cheung, Okato, in a media statement issued to the Taranaki Daily News.

"Instead of providing greater transparency in response to public concerns, the industry has continued to ‘spin', tell the public half-truths, claim media space, insist on confidentiality agreements with landowners, and buy their so-called social licence with donations and sponsorships for schools, community groups and public events," the submission says.

Both the submission and Ms Cheung's statement were prepared following last week's public release of the submission by petroleum company Todd Energy, which claims oil and gas exploration in New Zealand may become uneconomic if fracking is banned.

Fracking - hydraulic fracturing - is a process that involves fluid being pumped down a well's drill pipe at high pressure.

That creates fractures in the reservoir rock so that oil or gas can more easily flow.

Climate Justice Taranaki wants fracking banned outright in New Zealand. But if it is allowed to continue to be used, much stronger regulations are urgently needed, its submission says.

"We assert that hydraulic fracturing, through its contribution in maintaining the supply of, and hence our reliance on, fossil fuels, is inherently dangerous," it says.

"As major scientific authorities and economic studies have demonstrated, continuing down a fossil fuel-driven path and delaying the transition onto sustainable energy systems will be much more costly economically."

- Taranaki Daily News

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