The most recent attempt at offering a block off the Canterbury coast for drilling prospects, described as lunacy by the Deputy Mayor of Christchurch is not without its faults. And those faults are not just in the economic or environmental impact assessment of opening up the Kaikoura coast.
Anyone who did geology at a university or paid attention in high school geography will know that the South Island straddles the tectonic plate boundary between the Australian plate and the Pacific Plate. University level geology will also teach that four large faultlines running roughly parallel to each other, and aligned NE-SW enter the sea between Kaikoura and Picton. This is the transfer zone for seismic stress on the Alpine Fault, which is the tectonic plate boundary, as reflected in the high level of seismic activity experienced in this part of the country. The southern most is the Hope Fault which ruptured in 1888 in a magnitude 7.0-7.3 and ruptures every 120-140 years. The second is the Clarence Fault, which is not well known, but whose trace is visible from the air. A third is the Awatere Fault, which ruptured in 1848 in a magnitude 7.5 and felt across much of the country. The fourth is the Wairau Fault. All four are active faults.
Due to the proximity of these faults to the area that has been offered by the Government, a primary concern I have is that any drilling rig that does operate off the coast will have to be built to high standard of seismic engineering. If any product from the drilling rig is taken to a port, the onshore facilities will have a two fold hazard, because the Kaikoura coast is one of the most prone parts of the South Island coastline to tsunami with both near field and far field risks identified.
There are environmental risks that I am not convinced that the Government has taken into account, or plans to do so. The most obvious is an oil spill, either from the rig or ships or infrastructure associated with the rig. However low the risk of it actually happening might be, in a dynamic marine ecosystem, the consequences are substantial. Another is a fire caused by the loss of control of a bore that then goes rogue. Shutting down the bore would be just the start of the problem. Fighting the fire and stopping the contaminants from reaching the coast line. All of this requires a coast guard or other coastal agency with the means to respond in a timely and effective manner. The agencies exist, but how often they train for a spill and whether they have the equipment and personnel to respond is another question altogether.
The risks are also social. New Zealand is a nation that prides itself on being environmentally pure and ecologically responsible. Yes it is true that the world is not likely to be rid of the need for oil any time soon, and I am personally not opposed to drilling so much as I am that it gets done in a way that has community support. At this stage, there is no evidence to suggest any effort has been made to attain it. Kaikoura has an internationally acclaimed reputation for marine life and in particular whale watching, which draws in tens of millions of dollars per annum. Were there to be a spill or other disaster in which the marine environment is contaminated, the social cost – job losses and income aside – would be significant.
International companies want to come and invest in New Zealand. Exploration companies are no exception. I have no problem with them coming, as long as they are prepared to comply in full and without question with New Zealand environmental and occupational safety and health regulations. Not all of them are prepared to comply, as the United States found out when the well owned by a subsidiary of B.P. went rogue in 2010, so how will we know whether an exploration company will comply here?
I just hope the answer is not found out on the day we have a blue water emergency.