Editorial: Drill until you get it right

A sense of excitement is mounting in some, dread in others, and an encrusted sense of deja vu in more than just a few, at the news deep-sea drilling is returning to southern waters.

A case for each of those three reactions could be mounted.

It is tempting to want to settle, emphatically, on one of them.

As things stand, that would be unwise.

The Shell-OMV-Mitsui consortium's decision to commit up to $200 million for an exploratory well is the latest step in a long-term process in which the stakes are high in terms of benefit and risk.

Anyone seeking certainties will find precious few to cling to in this issue. Even so, the prospect of recovering commercial quantities of natural gas remains one we should be looking into, rather than turning away from under the illusion that we already know all we need to.

The Greens ardently reject both the achievability and the wisdom of the exploration goal.

They point, reasonably enough, to the spectacular failures on our national doorstep, from the Rena, and on a much larger scale internationally, perhaps most notoriously the Gulf of Mexico.

Not worth the risk, case closed? Only if we wilfully disregard the day-to-day productivity and profitability of operations that have been underway worldwide for decades.

And the technological advances that continue to extend the margins of what's gettable.

It is only through technological and scientific advances that the Great South Basin is at last looking to be, potentially, in recoverable reach.

We should none of us forget that any operation out there would be at the extremes of industry capability - 150km from the coast, beneath a mighty 1350m of water, the top of which can be hellishly stormtossed.

The planet needs to progress, significantly, from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. The issue here is whether "cleaner fossil fuels" such as natural gas have a role - perhaps even a more prominent one - in making an achievable transition at a time of increasing energy demand.

None of which presupposes that where there's a will there's a way. Because even now there might not be. Shell NZ's country chairman Rob Jager cites expert predictions, at this stage, of a 30 per cent chance of a commercial discovery.

So Shell consortium's decision is a green light, but only as far as the next set of traffic lights. Essentially it's for 40 days' exploratory drilling. After which, even a thumbs up would progress matters only to the stage of appraisal drilling.

We're looking at a decade delay before things get truly productive.

As for the direct economic benefits for Southland, much depends on factors not yet known, including whether the base would be in Dunedin or Bluff. The lines of communication between local interests and the consortium need to be maintained and developed to ensure that the strongest case is put forward.

Those with memories of Great South Basin exploration projects reaching back to the 1970s will have a sense they have seen it all before. But things do change. And there is scope within that next decade for things to change considerably more. Potentially for the better.

The Southland Times