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Deep sea drilling: The spirit of Mururoa?

Deep sea drilling: The spirit of Mururoa?

By Bronwen Beechey
January 27, 2014

In June 1973, the NZ Labour government sent two Navy frigates to the Pacific atoll of Mururoa to formally protest against France's testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. The Spirit of Peace, the Fri and the Vega, also sailed to Mururoa to observe the tests. Photographs of French sailors boarding the Vega and assaulting its skipper were published around the word. In November of that year, France announced that it would conduct all further nuclear testing underground.

Forty years after that partial victory, the Vega sailed to an area 185km from Raglan to protest at deep sea oil drilling in NZ waters. The US oil giant Anadarko had been granted a permit for exploratory drilling in waters up to 1600 metres deep, with an untested drilling ship. The Vega was part of the Oil Free Seas flotilla, which was also protesting the “Anadarko amendment” rushed through parliament last May, which prohibits protesting at sea within 500 metres of an oil rig or drill ship illegal. While five of the six vessels of the Oil Free Seas flotilla stayed outside the 500-metre limit, the Vega remained on the drilling site for seven days. No action to move the Vega was taken.

In support of the flotilla, thousands gathered at West Coast beaches with banners expressing opposition to deep sea drilling. In a November poll run by the NZ Herald, a paper with a generally conservative readership, 2803 opposed deep sea drilling compared to 1305 in favour. In a TVNZ online poll conducted in response to the Oil Free Seas protest, 80% supported the flotilla’s actions. But in contrast with the protests at Mururoa, the Oil Free Seas flotilla did not have the support of the Labour Party. Leader David Cunliffe declared that Labour was “not opposed in principle” to offshore oil drilling.

The Oil Free Seas protest flotilla left the drilling area on November 26, at the same time as Greenpeace filed papers at the High Court requesting a judicial review of Anadarko’s permit to drill, on the grounds that the company had not released its Emergency Response Plan, or spill modelling showing the possible impact of an oil spill, to NZ’s Environmental Protection Authority. Anadarko only provided a summary version of its discharge management plan and contingency plans to the EPA.

The High Court challenge was dismissed on the basis that under the recent Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf Act, the Environmental Protection Authority is responsible for assessing the environmental impacts of drilling before issuing a marine consent. But the environmental assessment excludes consideration of detailed plans for responding to an oil spill - that responsibility rests with Maritime NZ. Justice Alan Mackenzie found the EPA had applied the new law correctly, as its role was "limited to assessing whether the application contains information about the required matters", and its decision was "essentially administrative".

Shortly before Christmas, 1800 pages of documents supporting Anadarko’s drilling applications were released under the Official Information Act in response to a request lodged in November by Greenpeace. Among them was Anadarko’s contingency plan in the event of an uncontrollable spill. In this “worst case scenario” where a blowout could not be contained and the drillship would have to be evacuated, it would take at least 35 days to cap the well, as equipment for a capping stack would have to be sourced from Peterhead, Scotland (a service centre for the North Sea oil fields), flown to Singapore for assembly, and then shipped to New Zealand. In the meantime, oil would be spilling into the Tasman Sea at the rate of 12,000 barrels a day. (In a spill model released by Greenpeace last year, the estimate was 10,000 barrels a day. That model was described by Prime Minister John Key as “scaremongering” and by Petroleum Exploration and Production Association CEO David Robinson as "science fiction".) The contingency plan was approved by Maritime NZ.

The oil spill from the cargo ship Rena, which ran aground in the Bay of Plenty in 2011, was the equivalent of 2500 barrels. An inquiry following that disaster, which caused widespread death of wildlife and seriously affected the fishing and tourist industries in the area, found that Maritime NZ’s response was inadequate, largely due to lack of funding, lack of skills and experience and lack of suitable equipment.

Government and industry spokespeople have been quick to claim that a spill of the magnitude projected in the documents would be extremely unlikely. But we have seen the results of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in which vast quantities of oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days before the spill was capped. (Anadarko, as a quarter share investor in the well, was found jointly liable and recently agreed to pay BP $5.5 billion as part of the legal settlement). The Deepwater Horizon was drilling in 1500 metres of water, shallower than the proposed drilling site off NZ. The catastrophic effects of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill are still taking their toll on wildlife and residents in the area.

But this can be prevented. Opposition to offshore drilling led by Greenpeace and Maori chased Petrobas from NZ waters in 2012. And the campaign against deep sea oil drilling is set to continue. The National government has granted five more exploration permits to Anadarko and other big oil companies, including Shell, to drill for oil and natural gas off Northland, Taranaki, Canterbury and Otago. And, under draft regulations to accompany the EEZ Act, deep-sea drilling will become a “non-notified activity” – meaning that oil companies will be able to undertake deep-sea drilling without notifying the public that it intends to do so or giving the public a chance to scrutinise its plans. If this is adopted, it will have obvious implications for other dangerous activities such as fracking, and for proposed projects such as plans by Canadian company TAG to drill near Mt Taranaki, a site of great significance to Maori.

Already opposition is gearing up. On January 10, opponents to the TAG project held a noisy protest outside the company’s New Plymouth offices. A hikoi to Waitangi opposing drilling in Te Reinga Basin is planned for February. An Oil Free Summit held in Dunedin on the weekend of 11-12 January established a “rapid response team” of 260 vessels prepared to take to the waters around Otago to hinder Anadarko’s operations.

In the 1970s and 1980s, peace squadrons like this took to the waters to protest against visiting US nuclear warships. They inspired actions on-shore – including political campaigns for local councils to declare themselves nuclear-free, and industrial action by workers. When the USS Truxton sailed into Wellington harbour, seafarers on the Interislander ferries went on strike and wharfies walked off the job to join huge anti-nuclear protests. Even the cleaners at the US Embassy went on strike.

A similar mass movement to oppose investment in fossil fuels, call for investments in alternative fuel sources, and defend our democratic rights to protest and to be informed of proposed development, will be needed to counter the government’s drive for profit at the expense of safety and the environment.


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