Espiner: Time for oil perspective

Deep-sea drilling evokes negative emotions in many but science and logic suggest the benefits outweigh the risks.

It isn't easy being green. Ask Kermit, who has survived 60 years in the public eye and endured every possible slight from false marriage rumours and copyright infringement to a recent YouTube parody featuring a nearly naked Miley Cyrus.

So I have some sympathy with the famous frog's political brethren, often mocked as environmental whack-jobs, zealots, and crazies who would perform their own version of Cyrus's Wrecking Ball on our economy if ever let anywhere near the levers of power.

I think the Green Party is, overall, a force for good in New Zealand politics and provided it sticks to its core environmental principles rather than social activism it's likely to do very well again at the next election.

But every now and again the Green Party requires calling out. And its implacable opposition to exploratory drilling by Texan oil company Anadarko off the west coast of the North Island is one of these times.

The hyperbole and rhetoric spewed by the Greens and other assorted opponents of deep-sea drilling for oil and gas is out of all proportion to the risks involved in this venture, and has been driven far more by emotion than it has by logic or science.

It's true that deep-sea oil drilling has risk. It's true there have been accidents - most of them during the 1970s and 1980s, when the technology was still relatively primitive and safety and environmental standards lax by today's measure.

The notable exception, of course, was Deepwater Horizon, which exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, killing 11 people and spilling more than 600,000 tonnes of oil into the sea.

A report into that disaster found a litany of safety breaches, poor decisions and cut corners, which sparked a wave of regulation- tightening at other deep-sea oil rigs around the world. Both the energy sector and governmental environment watchdogs agree the industry is far safer now than it was even three years ago.

Those risks will never be completely extinguished, of course. But the same goes for flying in a plane. The chances of your flight crashing are extremely low. Every possible safety precaution is taken. It remains possible you will crash. But you still fly, because the benefits outweigh the risks by such a large margin that most people agree it's worth it.

A similar perspective needs to be applied to deep-sea drilling. It's arguable far greater damage has already been done to our environment from dairying than will ever be done by oil exploration, but that doesn't stop us banking the export receipts from our milk products.

The benefits to our economy from deep-sea oil drilling are similarly huge. The Government has estimated the potential returns at $12 billion a year if even one new offshore oil field is found.

In the context of our economy, that's about the relative size of the worth of Australia's mineral deposit trade with China. It has the potential to transform New Zealand into a wealthy nation with a high standard of living and first-class social services.

Other nations have become rich from deep-sea oil, most notably Norway, which has managed to keep its reputation as a clean and green nation while pocketing $122 billion, which it uses to fund the world's most generous welfare system.

There is also a moral argument at play here. Unless you're prepared to accept we should all give up using oil in all its forms immediately - along with the economic and social consequences - then shouldn't we produce our own oil if we can, using the highest of environmental and labour standards? Or do we continue to purchase from countries with considerably lower values than our own?

The question is not whether or not we should allow deep-sea oil drilling but how we ensure that it is as safe as it can possibly be.

That means having the world's best standards and state-of-the-art facilities to mitigate any breach, no matter how small the risk. It means properly funding the Environmental Protection Agency to monitor any drilling. And it means having a comprehensive management plan in place.

That's where the Government has let itself down, ramming a quick-fix through Parliament to allow test drilling to proceed with very little public consultation and safety standards that have not been properly detailed.

National has been overly secretive in its dealings with the oil companies interested in drilling here, fearful of the public's reaction. But this simply makes people more suspicious - and gives those who oppose drilling more of a platform.

Technology now exists for deep- sea oil wells to be capped very quickly if something breaks, but it's expensive, and it's a long way away, with the closest vessel capable of undertaking such a mission in Singapore. Anadarko says a capping stack could be flown in but it would still need to be assembled and shipped to the site.

If we are lucky enough to strike black gold, a NZ-owned and maintained emergency response vessel is a non-negotiable.

The Green Party, Greenpeace, and other environmental activists oppose deep-sea oil drilling on principle. But then, they also oppose our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels and even the notion of economic growth full stop. That's their prerogative.

There are some valid concerns that the Government must address. But we shouldn't let them own this debate. The potential rewards are too great to pass up.

Sunday Star Times