Nick Smith on The Nation - Transcript
Interviewed by SEAN PLUNKET
Sean What we are seeing on the Tauranga beaches is a frightening preview of what could happen if here was an oil spill from an offshore oil well in our waters. Maritime New Zealand's report identified the Taranaki oil wells as the biggest oil spill risk this country currently faces, and it warned that our regulatory requirements on the well operators to prevent and deal with spills were minimal compared to Australia or the United Kingdom. That seems to sum up the government's approach to oil spill prevention. Environment Minister Nick Smith joins me now from Mt Maunganui Surf Club. Minister good morning to you. You have said that this is a marathon not a sprint, is that an admission then that our authorities were slow out of the blocks on the Rena.
Smith – Environment Minister
No not at all. It's just the nature of the beast. Oil spills whether they’ve occurred in Australia, in Europe, in the United States or in New Zealand are a long haul to clean up. Just how bad that’s going to be Sean is very dependent on how much of the oil that still remains on the Rena can be contained. The government is throwing every possible resource with the salvers and trying to ensure that that remaining 13, 14 hundred tonne of oil is properly contained.
Sean Why didn’t you have inflatable oil barges alongside in the first two days?
Nick Because they would have made absolutely no difference Sean, and that’s where I think there's been some quite misinformed comment. You see the key element of the pipe system on the vessel for dealing with the heavy oil is in the keel duct. That keel duct was severely damaged when this vessel hit the reef. It would not have mattered for instance if those either inflatable or whether the Aranuia had been available on the Wednesday, would have made no difference to the capacity to actually be able to get the oil off the vessel.
Sean Well why did you opt for the Aranuia? Once you got the oil flowing why did you opt for the Aranuia over purpose built inflatable oil barges?
Nick Because that was not the critical path. With any of these types of events Sean, there is a critical path of issues that need to be dealt with. The number one priority was to transfer the oil on vessel from the oil containment in the front, in the bow, down to those stern tanks that were in good shape at that time. That was the right call. I have spoken to both the salvers, but not just the salvers, other marine experts who are in Tauranga, and the consistent message I get is that there's pretty ill-informed comment about the complexity of these sorts of salvage operations, and the consistent message I've had is what has taken place here is world's best practice.
Sean Well is it world's best practice to have a shoreline based response to major oil spills, because that’s what this review, and what Maritime New Zealand says, we wait for the oil to come ashore.
Nick Well no that’s not completely true, and I've read that report that was produced in February, it's a five year review of New Zealand's marine pollution strategy. A part of that is the use of dispersants, that is the operation that is conducted at sea. I think the fact is true, whether the oil spill is in New Zealand or in international waters, the options you have for the containment of the oil from vessels are pretty limited. I've for instance been pretty critical that booms were not used, the truth is that booms don’t work in those conditions. So I am satisfied that whether this incident had occurred in New Zealand, in Australia, the UK or the US, what we've seen from Maritime Transport over the period of the last week, is world's best practice.
Sean Well is it world's best practice when that report also says that our regulatory environment in terms of the onus on coastal shippers and people drilling for oil is minimal compared with Australia and the UK for example?
Nick Oh I think you have conveniently ignored Sean the most important element of the recommendations from that report, and that was that New Zealand's marine pollution response was in good shape, and the majority of the recommendations that come from it was in the …
Sean That doesn’t answer my question Minister, how can you say we have world's best practice when that report itself says that the regulatory environment which oil drillers and coastal shippers or shipping companies operate in New Zealand is minimal when compared to Australia and the United Kingdom.
Nick And the key recommendation that came both from that report and the government's review associated with the development of New Zealand's petroleum resources offshore, was the need for a proper environmental assessment system out in the exclusive economic zone. And that is why in July I introduced into parliament specific legislation to make sure that those deficiencies which are out in the exclusive economic zone, that are about petroleum drilling, not a normal shipping operation, that is why the government has introduced legislation and interim arrangements to make sure that we bring ourselves up to best practice. And I am satisfied …..
Sean Now you used the term 'bring ourselves up to best practice' which gives the lie to what you said earlier which says we're operating at the best ….
Nick No I take offence at that Sean, that is not fair game. Look the truth is that in the exclusive economic zone we currently and have never had legislation for the assessment of environmental impacts, and it is myself that in July introduced legislation into the parliament, to rectify that one area in which we needed to improve if we are to have a substantive offshore drilling industry. That review was triggered in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico incident in which the government said hey look, we need to make sure that we do have world best practice, and that’s why we got that independent best practice …
Sean Would world best practice include a 24/7 rapid response vessel?
Nick Well I'm not convinced, and it's interesting in that review they were not convinced. Now it is true that a Nelson company tried to sell the government a vessel last year, and I have to tell you Sean the idea that Ministers are gonna tell our maritime authorities hey you must purchase that particular vessel is not the way we operate.
Sean Well what about any vessel Minister, rather than relying for example on having 50 experts come over from Australia?
Nick Well the truth is – no come on Sean, look New Zealand is not sensible and it is almost a contradiction of terms to say that New Zealand is going to have experts in these sorts of spills. The truth is to be an expert you need to get regular experience. New Zealand only has – this is New Zealand's worst maritime environmental disaster and we are going to need international expertise to respond to those, and we've got the very best of those on the ground here in Tauranga. In terms of the question about a vessel it would have made nought difference if you had on the Wednesday, hours after that the vessel hit that reef, it would have made no difference in terms of getting the oil off shore. The key issue in the immediate term was getting some pipes by which they could extract the oil from the top of those tanks, because normally it is taken through the pipes that were wrecked in the collision with the reef.
Sean So Minister you are telling the people of that community as the dead sea beds wash up on their front lawns or on their beaches, as they see their beaches despoiled, that actually this was a disaster that could never have been prevented and the government has done all it can.
Nick Of course it could be prevented. It could have been prevented absolutely simply by the master of that ship on a perfectly calm day avoiding a very well documented reef, as occurs with thousands of vessels that come in and out of the port of Tauranga. That is why the government is holding the captain to account. The rumour that I have heard is that he simply tried to cut time and cut a corner to try and get into that port on time, but the moment the Rena had hit that reef we were into a scenario that inevitably was going to result in oil on the beach. And it is my view that the government has thrown every possible resource at trying to minimise what was making the best out of a bloody awful situation.
Sean Minister, perception is reality, and I want to draw a parallel with the terrible events at Pike River, and that is that we have learned as the hearings down there have been underway over the past few weeks, that in an environment where the government sets a regulatory or safety framework which relies on industry to monitor itself, to safety check itself, there is always the possibility, indeed the probability that industry and in this case the shipping industry, will do the bare minimum. That would seem to me to be a philosophical problem.
Nick Oh I think that is too early to call. You know I've heard claims for instance from the Maritime Union that this is all because the ship is and the crew is Philippino. Look only last year in Nelson I had a substantive vessel run to shore in Golden Bay as a consequence of the negligence and not being able to properly navigate. I think we should wait for those conclusions to properly draw, where I think there is an analogy with the Pike coal disaster, is that at the moment that explosion occurred at Pike, the moment that vessel hit that reef, then the disaster was in the making, and I think we should be careful of beating up those people that whether it be the Police in Pike or Maritime Transport in this case, who are left with the job of picking up the mess, and a whole lot of people after the event being wise as to the course of things that should have occurred. It is my view that in actually both cases little mattered what occurred in the aftermath, the damage was done from the time those disasters were triggered.
Sean You mentioned cutting corners. Is that now your understanding or is that the emerging understanding of why this ship ran aground on the reef?
Nick Oh the information I have heard was that the path that was navigated was one in which they were trying to get into port quickly. Now that is rumour, I can't confirm that. There is a proper investigation taking place with the Transport Accident Commission, but it appears from the charts that they were in a rush to get to port, went full bore, cut the corner, hit the reef, and there's a proper inquiry that needs to take place to confirm that course of events.
Sean Finally Minister, a lot of people down there, a lot of locals want to help, there has been some frustration in recent days, people who have volunteered haven’t been got back in contact with. Are you working on harnessing the resource of the locals to help in the clean up?
Nick We've had a fantastic response from the people of Bay of Plenty, and there are over 1500 people out today, Both the Army and volunteers are responding to this clean up. The bird recovery operation has been nothing less than outstanding Sean, and I think there does need to be credit both for the locals and the way many of those authorities have responded to this awful disaster. Look as Environment Minister you couldn’t pick a worse week than what has occurred over the last week, but I am confident that we will be able to get the beaches and the coast of the Bay of Plenty, back into the sort of shape of which both that community and New Zealand can be proud.
Sean Thank you for your time today Minister, I know you're busy. That is the Environment Minister Nick Smith.