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Oil industry’s rush to drill deep sea blind to dire problems

Oil industry’s rush to drill deep sea blind to dire problems

The oil industry in NZ seems oblivious to great dangers and wants the EEZ Bill to be rushed through so they can speedily proceed with ocean drilling projects. Kay Weir, editor of Pacific Ecologist, explains why this is a big mistake.

Far greater costs are involved for all life on earth from drilling for oil in the oceans, compared to the financial costs of any delay to their plans which concern oil explorers in Parliament’s EEZ Bill consultations. Patrick Smellie’s 13 February article, Oil Explorers fear EEZ bill will derail mining plans ignores the dire problems already existing in the Oceans from ever increasing industrial activities particularly over the past 60 years.

His article reads as if the oceans do not exist except as a static, impervious backdrop for oil company activities, which must not be delayed, even by due democratic Parliamentary process. It’s as if climate change, caused by fossil fuel emissions and the resulting dangers of warming oceans, do not exist. It’s as if ocean acidification and its huge threats do not exist. It’s as if drilling for oil in the sea has never caused pollution problems, despite the fact that one of the companies planning to drill in NZ waters, God help us, in the next two years, Anadarko NZ, is linked with the company that caused the huge deep-sea oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Global warming, ocean warming and ocean acidification, caused by as yet unrestrained emissions from fossil fuels through industrial activities, plus over-fishing, and pollution of the oceans by a range of life-threatening persistent pollutants, including from mining activities, as well as radionuclides are changing the oceans to such an extent that scientists warn of mass extinctions with unknown ecological and evolutionary consequences. This is well documented by eminent scientists around the world and in many UN reports. Without marked reduction in CO2 emissions, marked reduction in pollution of the oceans, and reduced fishing efforts, we will bring about an unprecedented decline in ocean systems that will be outside the capacity and timescale of humanity to remedy.

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The Oceans absorb over a third of climate changing CO2 emissions from our industrial activity and sadly emissions continue to rise, despite the IPCC reports urging the need to reduce emissions. As emissions rise the Oceans warm and transport heat to polar ice sheets. This has serious consequences for marine ecosystems and ice sheets, the largest being Antarctica, which in turn will seriously affect humanity and many millions of people, including New Zealanders living on coastlines. CO2 also combines with seawater to form carbonic acid, thus making the Oceans more acidic. More acidic Oceans now threaten the great web of life in the Oceans, which contribute to the food security of 4 billion people, according to a 2010 UNEP report, Emerging Issues: Environmental Consequences of Ocean Acidification: a threat to Food Security. Key links in fish food chains, including pteropods, sea cucumbers and starfish are vulnerable to ocean acidification as are all organisms that make shells and reef systems. Coral reefs already declining through ocean warming, are threatened also by acidification. For coral reefs to survive experts say carbon dioxide needs to be reduced to 350ppm, but it is now over 390 ppm and rising about 2-3ppm annually. Many other marine organisms will also be badly affected by acidification with their respiration, oxygen uptake and reproduction being affected.

The acidification challenges facing marine organisms are unprecedented, reports Professor Rob Dunbar of Stanford University, in issue 20 of Pacific Ecologist, because of the speed at which the changes are occurring. Without marked reduction in warming emissions we will be unable to prevent disastrous consequences, and loss of entire ecosystems is likely. The 2010 UNEP report on ocean acidification, says that if emissions continue to rise at the same rate, by the end of this century an unprecedented 150% increase in ocean acidity will occur with unknown consequences for marine life.

We have reached an era when the more easily accessible fossil fuel “resources” are dwindling, because of the voracious demands of consumer societies, so oil companies, with their vested interest are looking at remote and dangerous places to continue use of very damaging fossil fuels. Through painstaking scientific research, we now know using fossil fuels causes dangers for human society and all life on earth. This is the era when investing in renewable energies, wind, solar and tidal, and low energy life styles is vital. By mining for fossil fuels in the oceans, we continue at great risk to pollute the atmosphere and oceans with CO2 and also pollution of the oceans by oils spills and persistent life-threatening mining effluents and also damage the sea floor. Evidence indicates there’s great potential for serious impacts on the sea floor through mining from direct crushing of life forms and coverage with mining discharges. Low oxygen levels in the sea lead to dead zones. Food chains can be disrupted with the demise of plankton species.

Eminent deep sea ecologist, Tony Koslow reports in his book The Silent Deep, P 172/173 that a major impact of oil exploration on the Oceans has been the chronic effect of drill cuttings and drill muds disposed during operations. They often contain barite and other products which contain heavy metal contaminants, particularly zinc, copper, cadmium and lead. A complex mix with effects which include smothering of benthic organisms around the well-head and effects of hydrocarbon enrichment of the sediment community. The oil industry rarely opens to the public the monitoring of impacts of its activities. However in Norway this monitoring is open for scrutiny. Scientists Olsgard and Gray showed that offshore oil drilling contaminants continued to disperse several years after drilling had ceased and eventually covered an area of at least 100 square kilometers around each platform with impacts on the marine community around 10-60 square kilometers.

The Red Sea is an example of severe pollution from oil drilling, seabed mining and industrial waste pollution as ocean visionary Yves Cousteau noted from his observations from 1954. In 1971, Cousteau warned in his book Life and Death in a Coral Sea: “The vegetable life of the Oceans provides a large part of the oxygen we breathe. If the sea is poisoned marine flora will disappear and with it will disappear a large part of the oxygen that is necessary for life on land.”

Today, scientists warn that the Ocean depths face dangers from long-term contamination as toxins accumulate in algae and krill. Ongoing research and monitoring of the many stressors on the Oceans is essential. Yet the oil industry and seemingly journalist Patrick Smellie, want the EEZ bill to be rushed through so they can continue to pollute the oceans and atmosphere, as if there were no consequences. They seem oblivious to the great dangers caused in large part by the oil industry itself. Drilling in the seabed for oil, and gas can only cause more emissions and ocean pollution and take us further down the road to ecological disaster, irretrievably damaging marine ecosystems, which will impact on the whole of life including human societies. It is vital that this bill is up to the challenge of restoring and conserving the oceans, which are the cradle of all life. Besides being a substantial food resource for billions of people, the Oceans also provide the moisture for the Earth’s hydrological cycle, they mediate the climate and the Ocean circulation system transports heat around the world. The oceans also provide around 50% of the Earth’s oxygen. Without the oceans we humans simply wouldn’t be here.

The Pacific Institute of Resource Management, (PIRM), endorses the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s submission on the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental effects) Bill, especially the call for instatement of the Precautionary Principle in the Bill. You can google to find the PCE’s submission. To find out more about the state of the Oceans, issue 20 of Pacific Ecologist has a number of reports from scientists -see and our submission on the EEZ Bill at


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