I have serious questions about the consideration of a move to end oil exploration that was announced by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern today. It is not that I necessarily agree with the exploration so much as I seriously wonder how much of this is not simply pandering to ideology.
It is true that oil exploration does indeed exact a substantial environmental toll. One only has to look at the devastation caused by Royal Dutch Shell and other companies in Nigeria to realize that the ecosystem suffers severely. On the Niger Delta in many places the ecosystem is effectively devoid of aquatic life. Another aspect is that the companies that engage in it are not exactly good corporate citizens in terms of social responsibility – Shell hired security for its facilities in Nigeria who happened to be from different militias, with the result being significant human rights abuses being committed.
Whilst I do not expect to see this happening in New Zealand, I wonder how much tolerance they will have for the right to protest peacefully on the high seas. The Government of former Prime Minister John Key amended the Crown Minerals Act in 2013 to effectively criminalize peaceful protests at sea.
It is perhaps the lack of planning that has obviously been done that bothers me the most. New Zealand is a very fossil fuel oriented country when it comes to transport. Whilst hybrids and electric cars are available in small numbers they only make up a fraction of the total car fleet. That fleet is getting older as New Zealanders shy away from expensive new models and hold on to their older Toyota Surfs, Hyundai Getz’s, Holden Commodore’s. It is not uncommon to see an early 2000’s or late 1990’s Toyota Surf with say 350,000-500,000 kilometres on the clock. None of these cars will be very fuel efficient compared with the Toyota Highlanders, Camry’s and Previa’s of now, or the newer model Hyundai Imax vans and so forth.
One problem is the cost of buying a new vehicle. For many low-middle income earners, their wages have been largely static for the last several years whilst fuel, maintenance and registration costs have all increased. Unless incomes substantially increase, many New Zealanders will only replace their vehicles when they die, get stolen or their individual needs change.
Another problem is that Labour and National have diverging priorities on transport. Labour favour public transport, railways and less emphasis on building motorways. It will have to compete with differing ideas such as New Zealand First’s Railways of National Importance, which aims to improve the rail network around New Zealand. National’s Roads of National Significance programme cost New Zealand about N.Z.$12 billion and did not address the genuine need in many rural areas for improvements. These included items such as getting rid of the one way bridges on the West Coast, improving the passing lanes on roads other than State Highway 1.
A third and perhaps debatable problem is the actual investment and research effort being put into going fossil fuel clean. If one replaces fossil fuels that assumes a sustainable replacement fuel can be found. So far biofuel for vehicles in New Zealand is still in its dark ages.
Whilst trains could become electric and the diesel locomotive fleet is replaced, I cannot see electric trucks catching on. Where there exists scope is to increase the amount of freight being moved by railways. This is particularly so along the east coast of the South Island in the post-earthquake environment around Kaikoura where trucks have always found it difficult navigating the twisty and narrow corners.
In short I think Labour is trying to achieve something that is not going to happen. Fossil fuels in New Zealand will hang on grimly just like smoking will. The socio-economic gains of totally getting rid of fossil fuels might not be worth the costs