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Dangerously lax attitude to spills in NZ

Written By: - Date published: 11:19 am, June 14th, 2010 - 19 comments
Categories: Economy, Environment - Tags: ,

The Deep Horizon oil spill drags on and on and the estimates of the daily leak keep growing. Once, BP claimed that it was leaking 5,000 barrels (750,000 litres) a day. Now, BP is capturing 16,000 barrels a day and tens of thousands more barrels are still leaking into the sea. The gusher is equivalent to a third of New Zealand’s oil consumption (which makes you think what we’re doing to the atmosphere). Yet the government is pushing ahead with deep sea drilling a disturbingly dismissive attitude towards what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico and could happen here.

Announcing the drilling permits for Petrobras to undertake deep sea drilling in the Ruakumara Basin, Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee said, get this, we don’t have to worry about spills happening in New Zealand because they wouldn’t be in the commercial interest of the oil company:

“I’m of the strong view that any of the oil companies who might be interested in pursuing their options will themselves, for the matter of their own liability, want to make sure that they are as safe as they possibly can.”

Well, that’s a touching faith in capitalism. But, Gerry, spills happen. Of course no company wants a spill to happen – it’s a waste of its oil and a clean up cost – but they happen.

Then he says:

The spill in America was the result of “one company with a problem”

A dangerously ignorant statement. BP is not the only company to have ever had a spill. The current spill, contrary to constant misreporting, isn’t even, yet, the largest spill ever to happen in the Gulf of Mexico (the largest happened off Mexico, so no-one remembers it). Petrobras itself had four major spills in 2001 alone.

John Fallon Petroleum Exploration and Production Association of New Zealand was also worryingly blase on Back Benches last week:

“We’ve been drilling for 40 years around New Zealand… we’ve never had an accident at all”

Hmm, is New Zealand magically protected from the accidents that happen elsewhere? Or have we just not been doing any deep sea drilling on the scale that we’re now looking at? He then casually admits they don’t even plan for a large scale spills:

“the oil spill management system that we have in New Zealand is designed around a much smaller-scale accident [than Deepwater Horizon] it’s not really possible to manage this kind of risk on a day to day basis.”

Isn’t that kind of like the US military saying ‘well, we have safety precautions for our normal weapons but we don’t bother planning for an accidental atomic bomb detonation because it hasn’t happened yet’

“If this kind of event happened here it would be an equally large disaster but New Zealand’s track record is very good.”

That’s like me saying ‘I saw this guy who died in a car crash because he wasn’t wearing a seat-belt but a seat belt has never saved my life so why should I wear one?”

“I don’t think we need a moratorium because there aren’t any wells planned for 18 months and we’ll have learned the lessons from this spill by that time”

And if we don’t? Isn’t it more sensible to ban drilling until the ways to stop spills are inplace, rather than blindly assume the solution will be there if we need it? New Zealand doesn’t even have drilling regulations specifically for deep sea drilling, only for shallow drilling. The oil companies don’t know how to plug a deep sea spill.

“There have been about 3,000 wells drilled in deepwater and this is the first one to have a serious accident”

And it’s a serious accident that has caused tens of billions of dollars in damage. A 1 in 3,000 chance of an economy-destroying spill? Do you want to roll those dice?

This is not an issue that can be taken lightly. Even the Prestige spill off Spain, which seems small compared to Deepwater Horizon at 500,000 barrels and was 250km from the coast, shut down the local fishing industry for six months.

We can’t afford to take stupid risks like this. And we don’t need to. Our oil isn’t going anywhere. It’s only going to be more valuable in the future. Let’s wait until we can be confident that drilling for it isn’t going to lead to disaster.

Well, accidental disaster. The purpose of getting the oil is to burn it, which is a disaster in itself. The fact is that as oil gets harder to find and demand keeps rising, we’re going to be digging deeper in more extreme conditions and spills will be one of the costs. The best way to avoid oil disasters is to invest in an oil-free economy so we don’t need the stuff in the first place.

19 comments on “Dangerously lax attitude to spills in NZ”

  1. vto 1

    Just like the water issue.

    This government has blinkers on which seem to be made of concrete. Matches their heads

  2. zimmer 2

    Oil is a naturally ocurring substance, where is the problem? What do oil spills & windmills have in commom? They both kill birds.

    Maybe nuclear is the answer. After all, it does not cause spills, kill birds and is easy to mine.

    • Bright Red 2.1

      zimmer… are you seriously saying you don’t see the problem with an oil spill?

      Oil is natural, oil spills are not.

      And we’ve already had peak uranium… so don’t pin your hopes on that.

    • Bill 2.2

      Chernobyl didn’t kill birds? And didn’t spill radiation into the surrounding environment and across western Europe? And was easily plugged?

  3. zimmer 3

    You zealots on this site would like us to live like hermits in caves so things like oil spills do not happen. But like the pigs in 1984 you will want to be more equal than others.

    Of course the oil spill is bad as well (low safeguards in place) as well as Chernoble (this was caused by recklessness more than anything else though) but I still want a good standard of living. So, yep, I am prepared to put up with a environmental disaster from time to time to keep this standard of living.
    Katrina was a natural disaster so these will still happen as well. We live with these do we not?

    • Bright Red 3.1

      Chernoble? Is that an attempt to write Chernobyl?

      “but I still want a good standard of living. So, yep, I am prepared to put up with a environmental disaster from time to time to keep this standard of living.”

      But environmental disasters lower standards of living. Look at what is happening to the Gulf fishing and tourist economies. It’s always going to be better for your economy to spend a little to avoid a major disaster. No-one’s saying ‘let’s go live in caves’. we’re saying ‘lets work out how to avoid major disasters before doing dangerous things’.

      “Katrina was a natural disaster so these will still happen as well. We live with these do we not?”

      Yes. Natural disasters happen. That doesn’t make it logical to recklessly cause more disasters. Car crashes happen but doesn’t mean you would support cost cutting measures in road design that cause more crashes.

    • BenC 3.2

      Zimmer, you should be careful to come on such a site and attack reasonable arguments with a horribly misinformed opinion. You’re entitled to whatever opinion you wish, however before stating it, you should attempt to understand it, so you don’t look like an idiot.

      Everyone should be concerned by what has happened. If anything like this happens in New Zealand, our country will be bankrupted. Guess what zimmer? This will affect you, directly. Just like if you were to be currently living in one of the States suffering from the Gulf spill (luckily for them they are part of the richest country in the world).

      When we get a short-term local economic drive and a mere 20% of the profit from our own resources, we shouldn’t be willing to take such huge risks.

    • freedom 3.3

      zimmer
      I think you are a little confused. 1984 is a whole other book. I suspect you have read neither 1984 or Animal Farm, and i guarantee you never read The Lion and the Unicorn. All very important and relevant books to today’s society.

      and by the way, Katrina was a hurricane and was a completely natural event. It did not destroy a vital part of our global food chain as Deepwater is doing.

      • mcflock 3.3.1

        a lot of pigs have flown under the bridge to make zimmer’s glass half full without a paddle…

  4. ianmac 4

    Just don’t let Halliburtons anywhere near us!

  5. RedFred 5

    I wrote something on NZ preparedness for Oil spills mid 90s, I spoke with various harbor masters around the country, it was unanimous we are not in any position to deal with any size spill

  6. Zak Creedo 6

    This problem you claim Gerry Brownlee was talking about..

    I’ve just had some stuff in from the wsj and it could be that..

    BP PLC has concluded that its “top-kill’ attempt to seal its broken well in the Gulf of Mexico may have failed due to a malfunctioning disk inside the well about 1,000 feet below the ocean floor.

    A problem for sure.. anthropogenic.. for sure… decidedly unnatural… for sure..

    To the point : was Gerry’s “problem” assertion on the money, and if so how might a sensible government official require failsafe deepwater drilling process/es off the NZ shelf..?

  7. Zak Creedo 7

    sorry if this repeats.. I don’t recall an anti-spam insertion..

    This problem you claim Gerry Brownlee was talking about..

    I’ve just had some stuff in from the wsj and it could be that..

    BP PLC has concluded that its “top-kill’ attempt to seal its broken well in the Gulf of Mexico may have failed due to a malfunctioning disk inside the well about 1,000 feet below the ocean floor.

    A problem for sure.. anthropogenic.. for sure… decidedly unnatural… for sure..

    To the point : was Gerry’s “problem” assertion on the money, and if so how might a sensible government official require failsafe deepwater drilling process/es off the NZ shelf..?

  8. jcuknz 8

    The only reason for going ahead with exploratory work is that hopefully an answer will be found as a result of the Gulf of Mexico catastrophy and if not then permission for exploratory/productive wells can be withheld. Since the area has not been explored the first step is exploding charges and listening to/recording the results, only if they are favourable does drilling go ahead. Instead of placing the overlay over Cook strait it might be better to place it over the Nick’s Head {??? no map handy} area and plot in the ocean currents which luckilly took that trimaran back to Auckland some years ago, though it could have ended up in the Pacific.

  9. JJ 9

    A one off event does not indicate a pattern, lets not forget that the risk of a spill is the same as it ever was (and that means low!). Deepwater Horizon was the deepest rig drilled in history at over 10kms. The area of the Raukumara basin being considered for drilling on the other hand has a maximum depth of 3kms. Quite a different situation.

    And regarding early posts with regard to Chernobyl, that was of course a huge disaster but the anti nuclear back lash was undeserved. Comparing Chernobyl to a Western designed, modern reactor is like comparing apples and oranges – dangerous, poorly designed apples to safe, well managed ones.

    • Daveosaurus 9.1

      “dangerous, poorly designed apples to safe, well managed ones.”

      Like Three Mile Island, you mean?

      • Chris 9.1.1

        Three mile island is not particularly modern and the accident concerning it was not particularly bad. In comparision to oil (spills!) and coal (carconogenic ash!) nuclear has a better safety record, causing fewer deaths and less enviornmental damage. Renewables are pretty damn safe but only part of the answer in the medium term.

  10. RedLogix 10

    Deepwater Horizon was the deepest rig drilled in history at over 10kms.

    Try checking your facts. The Mocando well is 5000ft at the seabed and 18000ft at the reservoir pressure zone. Nothing like 10km.

    Neither is it the deepest ever, the deepest might be this one.

    A one off event does not indicate a pattern, lets not forget that the risk of a spill is the same as it ever was (and that means low!).

    But of course that does not mean the consequences are minor either. The human brain has real trouble comprehending the game-changing nature of rare events that have catastrophic outcomes…we rather prefer to pretend they cannot happen.

    And while blow-outs in off-shore wells seem rare, bear in mind that Mocando is certainly NOT the first one, and won’t be the last. Spills, accidents and near-misses happen all the time, most of them we don’t hear about because they don’t happen in places where it inconveniences lots of white people.

    Moreover the vast majority of existing wells are in relatively shallow water, it’s only in the last few decades that we’ve been drilling in such expensive places. And with all the easy to access oil long gone, the risk exposure involved in drilling in deep oceans will only increase with time.

  11. Zak Creedo 11

    Calling JJ,

    Could we have the specific of reservoir depth at Raukumara please..?

    The 3 kms doesn’t sit well with earlier advices here of seabed blasting to determine ‘activity’ etc.. that is, blasting to be done because nothing is known about this basin’ stability, operability etc.

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