Drilling for oil: The great imponderable

MARTIN VAN BEYNEN
Last updated 07:17 30/11/2013
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Martin van Beynen

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Martin van Beynen

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OPINION: I've decided I need to take a position on oil exploration in New Zealand.

I have thought about it long and hard for at least 10 minutes and I have come to this conclusion.

I don't know. Even that position is doubtful. It's probably more accurate to say I'm in two minds.

An American company aptly and perhaps tactlessly called Anadarko New Zealand has started exploratory drilling off the coast of Raglan this week with the Noble Bob Douglas, a sixth generation dynamically positioned (no anchors) drilling vessel. Early next year the ship sails into the Canterbury Bight to start the same exercise off the coast of Oamaru in what is called the Caravel Prospect.

Obviously there are a lot of things to consider in reaching a view on this topic including haunting mental images of oil disasters.

I was still in my 20s when the Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker bound for Long Beach, California, struck a reef off the coast of Alaska. Images from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico near the Louisiana coastline in 2010 are still fresh and closer to home oil oozing from the stricken Rena container ship provided even further graphic pictures of what can go wrong.

Oil drilling makes me think of birds pathetically flapping wings heavy with disgusting oil and black slime smothering pristine beaches and rocks.

I have this vision of a drill going into a pressured oil or gasfield in the Canterbury Bight and a gas geyser exploding from the sea, then igniting and sinking the Noble. Then the oil starts spilling and because New Zealand doesn't have the gear to stop the slick in time and conditions are unfavourable, as they always are, the oil hits the Zealand coast with horrendous consequences.

Far fetched? This is pretty much what happened in the Deepwater Horizon disaster although the oil people say the oil fields around New Zealand are so low pressure the oil needs to be pumped out.

Living on Banks Peninsula I have more than an academic interest.

According to the environmental impact assessment of the Anadarko drilling campaign, experts have modelled the likely pathway of oil in the "unlikely" event of a spill.

Banks Peninsula is the mostly likely landing point of any oil slick in the Canterbury Bight although, comfortingly, weathering of the oil as it drifts, is expected to evaporate or disperse about two-thirds of it. The modelling suggests, according to the report, the overall probability of beaching is very low at about 10 per cent of events. It says the minimum time for an oil spill to beach is 45 hours in summer and 35 hours in autumn.

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In the assessment you will find a blowout is called a "loss of well control" and "although extremely unlikely, it is an event which has the potential to cause significant impacts on the environment and existing interests."

Another factor in pondering this issue is feeling a little hypocritical about adopting a position opposing oil exploration.

Did I raise a fuss about oil exploration or extraction in Taranaki where the oil industry has operated for decades without major incident?

And yes I drive a car, several in fact. The argument that car drivers cannot logically or morally oppose oil exploration in New Zealand is persuasive and therefore often trotted out.

It asks how people who are happy to use oil products as long as the raw material is extracted somewhere else in the world have a leg to stand on when they oppose oil drilling in their own territorial waters.

The argument doesn't really wash however. You can morally oppose a product even if you use it. Society might be structured so it gives you little choice but to use the product to operate in a normal way.

Also you might not actually like the product and what it does but find its use acceptable as long as it is produced in a safe way for both people and the environment.

Use does not equate to approval or the condoning of production in any circumstances.

In a countering to all this negative stuff I like the thought of a lucrative oil industry operating mainly out of sight somewhere over the horizon. It makes me think of Lotto although the cynic in me says most of the money will be going offshore and things won't change much.

But paying off our debts, putting something in the kitty for the future, reducing taxes and more money for healthcare and education are the sort of warm bath feelings that ameliorate those more negative feelings.

But I am sceptical. We have learned not to trust big companies and their experts. Even the greenies come across as extreme and unrealistic.

It's only exploratory drilling at this stage but if the searchers find it in large economic quantities it won't be long before the pumping begins. There might be some debate but the prospect of that moola just waiting to be released from under the seabed will be just too tantalising to resist.

If it all goes wrong, I just want you to know that when the issue first came up, I didn't really know what to think.

- The Press

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