New Zealanders recently lost the right to formally oppose deep-sea oil and gas exploration. As of this month, the public are effectively muzzled while Big Oil companies looking to strike black gold off the New Zealand coastline benefit from lowered costs and shorter waiting times for permits. At the time of writing there are approximately 59 current permits for petroleum exploration held by numerous companies, and the government is poised to open another block offer in April.
This amendment follows a controversial law passed last year limiting protesting at sea, whereby offenders can face fines of up to $100,000 or a year in prison. Opponents of intensive oil exploration see these changes as the government bending to the will of supermajors such as Anardarko Petroleum Company. Anadarko, who were involved in the monumental 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill, has been making its way around New Zealand trying to tap oil. Despite spending $300 million on exploration, they’ve so far come up dry. Robin Wilson-Whiting from Oil Free Auckland, a network opposing deep sea exploration, is hopeful Andarko’s fruitless search will deter other oil giants.
VICE: Recently the New Zealand government made activities for oil and gas exploration “non-notified”, what does that actually mean?
Robin Wilson-Whiting: Basically the government is trying to attract some of the richest companies in the world to come to New Zealand and initially it had a policy that they had to consult with the public about these exploratory permits. But the rich oil companies didn’t want to pay for the process, because it can be hundreds of thousands of dollars, and they didn't want to spend the time going through the process with people who are going to be affected by these projects, so they lobbied the government to change the rules, and change the rules they did. It means residents who live in these areas can’t approach the Environmental Protection Agency and tell them they don’t want this happening off their coastline. We don’t have any legal recourse to take the government to court over granting permits. So they are effectively and very deliberately blocking the public out of that process, because it is too expensive to have democracy in this particular area.
This amendment followed on from an earlier change that limited protesting at sea, which the government described as a safety exercise. Do you think that was a reasonable?
No, I think that was again a product of intense lobbying from these companies. The Prime Minister is very interested in meeting the needs of these companies and they didn’t want anybody to be bothering them while they carry out these projects. People who care about the environment want to stop this stuff, but we aren’t going to get in harm’s way to the point it’s going to affect the safety of the drilling. We don’t want to increase the chances of a spill, we are just trying to get out there and have our say. Saying it’s for our own safety is baloney basically.
With laws now preventing formal opposition, how are groups like Oil Free Auckland speaking out?
I think there’s a lot we can do to send the message to these oil companies. We can show through protest and public debate that this is not what we want for New Zealand. By protesting you are show these companies that it’s not a stable environment for them and there is not always going to be a government that rolls out the red carpet for them. There’s an election at the end of this and we can't have a government that is keen on rolling back democracy for the corporate good, and there are a lot of parties out there that don't want to see that happen.
What do you believe are the key concerns regarding deep sea oil drilling?
There are very real risks that we shouldn’t ignore as a country in terms of a spill. The exploration and seismic surveying they do has been shown in several scientific studies to harm, and even kill, whales and dolphins so we are very concerned about that. And on a bigger level they are drilling for oil in some of the most vulnerable and precious parts of the planet. So we don’t just oppose deep-sea oil drilling in New Zealand just because that’s where we live, we oppose deep-sea drilling and fossil fuel projects all around the world. We’re running out of the stuff and we need to find alternative solutions rather than pouring billions of dollars into finding those last drops and finding ourselves up shit creek.
Have you felt a lot of resistance to your point of view?
There are always people that disagree that we oppose deep sea drilling, because we live in a society that is dependant on oil. That’s a really common thing. And what I want to say to those people is, of course we are dependant, that’s why we need to stop things like deep sea oil drilling and fracking because our dependency and our addiction to fossil fuels is driving us off a cliff. We are all so deeply entrenched in a society dependent on oil, but doesn't mean we can't have an imagination about how we can do better.
Unemployment in New Zealand is around six percent. Some New Zealanders see deep-sea drilling as an economic opportunity for the country, what do you say to that?
I would assume that they haven’t looked at what we actually get out of it as a country. New Zealand has the fourth lowest royalty and tax regime in the world, so we are the bargain basement of all countries. So that means we only get a tiny percentage of any profits. In terms of the jobs, we don’t have the expertise for that In New Zealand, it’s a very different ballgame when you get to these depths, so we would be getting the lower paid jobs. And the industry has actually admitted this.
If the worst-case scenario were to happen and a spill occurred, how equipped is New Zealand to deal with that?
We are not equipped to deal with it. Maritime New Zealand is responsible for cleaning up any spills, and they've got three tinnies. They are literally like 4-5 metres long. To give a bit of comparison, in the Gulf of Mexico they had 6000 ships responding to that spill. We’ve got three. Granted there would be a lot of fishermen and other people to help, but it’s really, really pathetic.
Follow Dannielle on Twitter: @danielle_street