“There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action” – Goethe

The charge of ignorance is not one I would level lightly. Ours is a complex world and people act for a variety of reasons; it is at the core of a liberal perspective to respect these – but even liberal tolerance has its limits. These aren’t arbitrary limits or the decree of some paternalistic dictator – but the very real limits of biological systems, set by Mother Nature herself. It doesn’t matter what the supposed economic benefit are: the ongoing pursuit of deep-sea oil by Messrs Key and co. flies in the face of all available evidence. This isn’t open to interpretation or only the domain of a small subset of society, but a key – the key – issue of our day. Climate change is no longer a problem that we can leave to “future generations” – it is happening and it is happening right now. As the most recent report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows, our continuing adherence to fossil fuel extraction now leads us dangerously close to collapse.

The maths is very simple. Our world is warming and we are playing a significant role. If we are to have a 50% chance of keeping warming within the 2°C limit set at the latest climate negotiations in Copenhagen then the entire global budget for carbon emissions gives us only 15-25 years to adapt (depending on which estimate you use). Recent evidence  suggests that the agreed limit of 2°C may be far too conservative, with many scientists predicting increases in excess of 4°C if we fail to check our current trajectory. We’ve already warmed up 0.8°C and the impacts have far exceeded those predicted. If the average temperature goes up 4°C it won’t just mean you can ditch your winter coat. It will mean heat waves, droughts, fires and storms – with huge loss of life – and yes John, the economy will take a hit too. This isn’t a political issue, but a human one. Bill McKibbon points out that the amount of carbon in the existing coal, oil and gas reserves of fossil fuel companies is more than five times higher than the allocated budget we need to stay within to stay within the two degree limit. So why are we still searching?

When a National Government enacted the Resource Management Act in 1991 it was groundbreaking, establishing New Zealand as a world leader for our domestic focus on sustainability and its emphasis on the interrelation between economy and environment. However the years subsequent have seen a blossoming of ignorance in those tasked with governing us, with this key dependency sidelined in the push for economic growth. Our current government only continues this trend, albeit in spectacular fashion – removing the right to protest oil exploration at sea while claiming it as the solution to our modest economic woes.

If the above isn’t enough to convince you of the institutionalized lunacy running our country then Greenpeace’s recently launched oil spill model might be just the thing to push you over the edge. Frustrated with the lack of communication from the companies granted exploration permits (Anardarko refused to release their own modeling) Greenpeace took the matter into their own hands, hiring experts and using industry standards to model the likely effects of oil spills from the two exploratory wells going in this summer. That’s right – going in. This is happening, in our backyard, with the Government’s assent.

As the models show, even conservative estimate of flow rates and recovery times leave our marine environment decimated. The reach of a potential spill is vast and its downstream effects considerable – and not just for our marine life.


Aucklanders speak fondly of the mythical West Coast beaches, and a hot summer day sees thousands make the pilgrimage out to Piha and Muriwai. This is nigh on our right as New Zealanders: a joyous habit engrained in our national psyche. But 95% of the spill models see these beaches impacted within two weeks of a spill (with the most conservative estimate requiring 76 days to stop a spill – saying nothing about the extra time and cost of clean up). This won’t just affect those with a penchant for black sand and burnt feet; the desolation of our West Coast would see the East overrun and Omaha even more overloaded than it currently is. Kaipara Harbour too takes a hit – with the impacts in the main spawning site for snapper likely to be felt by fishermen all round the country.

While these are all only probabilities, the question has to be asked – do we as a nation really want to be gambling with our environment? Because make no mistake, gambling is exactly what these companies are doing. The seas around New Zealand are notoriously rough, but unlike the rigs in the North Sea, we are thousands of kilometres – a literal world away – from the infrastructure support necessary to contain a spill. It doesn’t matter how stringent the permitting process is. The sea is a mysterious, dangerous place and exploration is inherently risky.

Predicted spill at the 76 day mark – where conservative estimates suggest the spill might be stopped.


The precautionary principle is a concept from international law that emphasises care and foresight in the face of an uncertain environmental future. In the case of serious or irreversible harm, it states that incomplete or inconclusive scientific knowledge shouldn’t be used as a reason for proceeding. But that is exactly what our government is doing, and doing in a deliberate fashion. The decision to refer to a “cautious approach” instead of a “precautionary approach” in the recent EEZ legislation was a very conscious one, drawing criticism from the New Zealand Law Society and demonstrating the evasive means National will use to achieve dubious economic ends.

National rely on royalties, with 42c in the every dollar of profit coming back to New Zealand – crucially requiring that for us to benefit as a country these companies must first make a profit. But as McKibbon’s figures show, the existing supply of oil far exceeds the demand we can sustain. Finding more oil won’t create more wealth for New Zealand; it’s us backing a sinking ship at huge risk to us and our environment. The precautionary principal couldn’t be more applicable. The effects of drilling in our waters are unknown and the risks, both economic and environmental, considerable. We know what burning any discovered oil will do – and yet National continues on as if this is opposition policy, rather than concrete science.

We can no longer stand by while our government plays economy off against environment, as if one could be divorced from the other. The obsession with fossil fuels as a free ride to economic prosperity ignores all evidence to the contrary. Not only is deep-sea drilling an outdated business model, gambling on stock that we don’t have the environmental capital to convert, but there are very real risks for the thousands of New Zealanders who make sea worship our national religion. While future generations and other forms of life all stand to be negatively impacted (and certainly deserve our consideration), this is an issue that can be determined on purely anthropocentric grounds. Climate change is happening in our lifetime and we have the power to stop it. Better for our environment doesn’t mean worse for us. In the language of economists, this isn’t a zero-sum gain, where improvements for one result in decreases for the other. As economic analyst Rod Oram notes, New Zealand is well placed to be lead the world in the development of renewable energy, biofuel and sustainable food. We have alternatives – so why are we chasing yesteryear’s model?

Treating our environment right requires more than ignorance permits. We need to face up to this momentous challenge as one, and refuse Government rhetoric to the contrary. Even if the terrifying future the models predict doesn’t eventuate, deep-sea drilling is still a dead horse. It’s high time we stopped flogging it.

New Zealand Oil Spill Map

Want to learn more?

  • Check out Greenpeace’s oil spill map site, where you can overlay fisheries and the range of some of our marine life – demonstrating the full reach of the impact.
  • Read Rod Oram’s article on how New Zealand could be a economic world leader by moving away from fossil fuels.
  • Or Peter Dunne’s take… and for those skeptical about the modeling, check this reply to the industry’s (fallacious) claim that the results are based on “unrealistic” flow rates…

Interested in avoiding these possible results?

  • Let’s get vocal. Talk to your friends and family – do they know about the facts of climate change and the institutional bodies that ignore them while the situation worsens? Empowerment begins with education: Greenpeace have more info at their “Get Free” campaign’s website (which I wrote about here) and for those interested in the science, Bill McKibbon (of 350.org) has an excellent article describing the “global warming’s terrifying new math” – providing concrete evidence of the “carbon bubble”: undermining claims oil will produce any economic benefit while demonstrating the very real impacts of climate change that these models perpetuate.


– Dan Kelly is a student blogger, with a clear focus on law, sustainability and promoting positive alternatives



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