“There be trouble in town sheriff, some cowboys is coming into town”. It could be a line from a grainy old western from our childhood (well, mine anyway) when the good, clean living people of a well to do town see trouble on a dusty horizon. It’s when the street talk stops, shutters shut and bar stools and laws get broken.

Well it seems the cowboys are right here in little ol’ New Zealand.

Yesterday it was revealed that the country’s largest oil company, Shell Todd Energy, has been drilling illegally off the west coast. In official documents released to the Green party, the Environmental Protection Agency has slammed Shell for failing to get permission to drill two wells in their oil and gas fields. It described the oil giant as having a “low range of a negative attitude”, which to you and me means they couldn’t give a monkeys. Shell claim that they didn’t know they had to get permission: that the new laws for managing oil and gas exploration at sea were just that, new, and they weren’t sure what to do.

And as ever, the Government leapt to Shell’s defence with environment minister Nick Smith claiming that you can always expect a bit of “argy-bargy” as it takes time to get used to new rules. And that’s fine when you’re asking rugby players to get the hang of a new offside rule. But when you’re drilling for oil, this relaxed attitude shows a worrying ambivalence that is well beneath a minister whose job it is to protect our oceans.

The troubling thing about Shell’s cowboy attitude to playing fast and loose with our laws is that this is the same company that wants to drill both in the dangerous, icy extremes of the Arctic and deep in our waters off the coast of Otago. Such a relaxed, wilfully ignorant attitude to regulations in such difficult, hazardous environments is how accidents happen.

And if we are to take Shell at their word – that they didn’t know the rules – then the simple response is that they should not be risking our oceans in the first place.

We don’t need to be taking these risks. New Zealand can move away from our dependence polluting fuels and power our homes, cars and businesses on cleaner, safer and smarter energy.

We just need the Sheriff to stand up, tip his hat and kick these cowboys out of town.

Now you can stand up and tell the EPA to prosecute Shell’s illegal drilling.

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