Guest Post: Deep Sea Oil Drilling in NZ : just who is crazy?

A guest post by Assoc Prof , director of Energy Studies at Otago University:

I think the time has come to ask, “Just who is crazy when it comes to the arguments for and against exploring for oil off the NZ coast?” The numbers coming from scientists vary from very scary to the “Oh shit it’s too late” variety. The very scary numbers suggest we have around two decades to decarbonise the world’s economy. The “too late” variety come from people like NASA scientist Jim Hansen, who researched the earth’s past climate to obtain a safe CO2 limit of 350 ppm in the atmosphere. We are now close to 400ppm. Hansen’s numbers suggest we should stop all CO2 emissions now and sequester carbon by tree planting and burying biomass as carbon in the soil.

To ensure a habitable climate for future humanity and provide energy for our continued social existence we must stop carbon dioxide emissions and start the transition to a sustainable energy economy. With the present (unsustainable) world economy so closely linked to fossil fuel use, it would be very difficult to stop all emissions immediately. Even Jim Hansen realises this. Some years ago he suggested a transition program where developed countries should close down all coal-fired power plants by 2020 and developing countries do the same by 2030. Hansen opposes any further exploration or exploitation of non-conventional hydrocarbons. There is no evidence that his advice is being followed.

I’ve been looking at these problems for years: it has made me very pessimistic. My pessimistic reputation led to a group of university students giving a lecture titled “Cheer up Bob”: they argued that change was possible — and that they were up to the challenge. From this grew a local consortium that wants to prevent exploration for deep sea oil and/or gas by Anadarko and Shell. This oil and gas is not part of the world’s known reserves: by all scientific accounts it cannot be used if we are to keep our climate habitable.

This proactive, enthusiastic Oil Free Seas Flotilla group wants to prevent human distress and suffering. It wants to preserve the earth’s climate for future generations. It wants an orderly transition to sustainable energy sources that don’t emit the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. The group does not want to shut down the world economy by preventing all existing emissions. Members are not protesting the existing extraction of known resources in Taranaki. They realise we need clear market signals that transition from fossil fuels is the only sensible choice. NZ progress depends on our investment in wind energy, solar energy and biomass resources.

The opposition to deep sea oil drilling is not against the use of conventional oil, especially for purposes that don’t emit carbon into the atmosphere. In fact the best use of remaining oil reserves may well be for construction materials, pharmaceuticals, fertiliser production and lubricants. Future generations may disbelievingly ask their parents, “You actually used to burn this valuable stuff?” 

Because natural gas is a lower greenhouse gas emitter than coal by around 50%, the use of gas in power stations is preferable to coal. Yet as world gas use is still increasing, in ten years the emissions reduction will be wiped out. In addition, gas substitution for coal doesn’t focus on a shift to sustainable energy sources in the short time available. Such a substitution also delivers profits to the very companies — such as Anadarko and Shell — that will invest in yet more oil and gas exploration and so again deliver more CO2 into the atmosphere.  We have to stop the cycle of fossil fuel dependence, not extend it. The gas transition argument is not valid.

So is the protest against oil drilling crazy, or are the people ignoring climate change deluded? New Zealanders must answer this urgent question. Are short term profits for a few worth the incredible risks involved to all?  Vested interests want to continue the status quo, by using all the oil, gas and coal until the earth is wrung dry by fracking, deep sea oil and gas extraction and mining the dirtiest coal. The two thirds or so of existing fossil fuels that cannot (should not) be extracted add up to hundreds of trillions of dollars of profits. But what do profits mean when the earth is uninhabitable? Or more to the point, what do dollars mean when there is nothing to spend them on?

The failure of international climate change negotiations shows that world governments are incapable of acting on this issue. The visible signs of global warming increase every year. Why? Because governments focus on economic growth at all costs and are at the same time subservient to the fossil fuel lobby. Unless the general population of all countries, including NZ, express concern by protesting this insanity, governments will continue not to act.

I am not alone in my views. Another group, Wise Response, is a raft of prominent New Zealanders from a wide range of professions and backgrounds. It’s calling for a cross-party risk assessment of how best to future-proof New Zealand against the climate, energy and financial challenges posed by our fossil fuel dependent society. Wise Response will present a submission to Parliament in April. When their team arrives at the Beehive, they will have the future of all New Zealanders in mind: regardless of political persuasion.

Kiwiblog is generally happy to run occasional guest posts to air different points of views.

Bob Lloyd is with Wise Response.

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