Northern Advocate Column

Dead fish, oil and the powerless council

5 September 2015

eight_col_dead_fish.jpgIt was a dead fish. Smelt, I suspect, like a dead fish. It was placed at the entrance to the Northland Regional Council building by people protesting the government’s plan to allow Statoil, a Norwegian company, to drill for oil off Northland’s coast.

As a symbolic action it had double meaning. One being the risk to the environment that any drilling accident would pose. Dead fish and much more if oil was to wash up on Northland’s coastline. Secondly, there was something fishy going on behind closed doors at the meeting between NRC councillors, government officials, and representatives of Statoil.

You would think the Northland Regional Council, given its role in overseeing the management of resources and the environment, would have authority over whether or not a foreign company could drill for oil off our coast. Apparently not, because the proposed drilling will take place more than 12 nautical miles from shore, beyond the NRC’s jurisdiction. It’s central government that’s given the green light to deep sea oil drilling, but if there were any accident it would be council (ratepayers) who would bare costs involved in any clean up, should oil threaten Northland’s coast. Smells fishy indeed.

And what of the emotional cost? The sea and beautiful coastline is a source of much enjoyment and happiness to Northlanders. Things start to smell even more rank when you consider what’s happening with the oil industry at the moment globally. Humanity has pumped out of the ground much of the oil that’s easy to get. Now it’s the hard stuff that oil companies are looking at. With difficulty comes greater risk.

Yes, the technology is there to build long pipes down through the ocean and into the earth’s unstable crust, but there’s no way such an endeavour is accident proof. We only have to consider the disaster that was the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. 4.9 million barrels of oil, over 87 days, flooded into the sea. The cost, in monetary and ecological terms, has been horrendous and ongoing. Local Maori are greatly worried that the ecology of Northland should be put at similar risk. Many other Northlanders, I’m sure, feel likewise.

So perhaps the most stinking aspect of all of this, is how we have no say over the decision. If any issue deserved to have an informed public debate leading to a referendum then it’s this one.

The main argument put forward by the government for allowing an overseas company to make profits from drilling oil in New Zealand’s territorial waters, is jobs. I’m deeply skeptical, given that any oil company is going to have its own skilled people and the drilling itself is heavily mechanised. The flow on effects to the local economy would be marginal. But the supporters of drilling can put this argument up, and those opposed will put their arguments. Then we vote in a binding referendum. That’s the clean fresh smell of democracy. Which is what this issue desperately needs.

One thing the NRC councillors could do, is go back to the government with this proposal: a binding referendum on deep sea oil drilling off Northland’s coast. As many other voices as possible should be added to this call.

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