Contrary to National’s belief fossil fuels are not dead – YET

Contrary to the belief of the National Party, the Government has no plans for a ban on coal. Part of this is pure necessity, ensuring that during dry seasons in the hydro-electric catchments where rains have failed to keep the hydroelectric storage lakes of the lower South Island and the Waikato power scheme topped up, the Huntly power station can still be started. It runs on coal and gas.

Part of the absence of a ban also rests on an acknowledgement that there is still a demand for New Zealand coal overseas, especially in China and Japan, with coal mining making up a significant part of the West Coast economy. The railway line from Ngakawau, north of Westport down to where it meets the Trans Alpine line is largely paid for by coal coming out of mines in this area.

There are other things that can be done first before any ban include:

  • No longer mining lignite or sub-bituminous coal which has a higher sulphur conent and releases
  • Focus on bituminous and anthracite coal which burn better

Power stations at Whiranaki in Hawkes Bay and Stratford in Taranaki are diesel fuel and natural gas based operations, respectively, that have installed capacity of 360 megawatts. Like Huntly, these are normally held in reserve unless there is a dearth of hydroelectric power available.

Contrary further to the National Party’s claims of fossil fuels being banned in the near future, Minister of Energy Megan Woods has stated that she can see oil and gas still being used in 50 years time. The reason for this is simple. National has ignored the finer print of the message and claimed that oil and gas will stop quickly, whereas the ban only exists on new exploration.

The claims made by New Zealand Gas have been completely dismantled by economic commentator Rod Oram. Among some of the rebuttals were:

  • Having the right geology – whilst true of Taranaki, it cannot be so easily said for the Canterbury Bight
  • The economics would suit New Zealand – actually the U.S. is becoming a major exporter, and the cost of selling N.Z. product at a price beneficial to both customers and shareholders alike is not likely to suitable
  • The fisheries will be okay – New Zealand has superb fisheries that are the envy of many nations, which is one of our biggest comparative advantages
  • The environment can survive an oil spill – The moves to protect the Southern Ocean fisheries aside, National slacked off in a big way on affording our marine environment the protection it badly needs and did not seem to think our capacity for dealing with an oil spill needed overhauling
  • No need for alternative sources – biomass is slowly becoming more popular; substantial research is going into other alternative energy sources, meaning the decline of gas is in some respects natural

Whilst it is true there is still an immediate future for fossil fuels, the long term outlook strongly suggests something approaching a gradual yet nearing terminal decline. New Zealand and the world are moving on, and at some point, N.Z. Gas will have to accept this.

Moving the New Zealand economy forward

All political parties talk about growing the economy. People need jobs and a source of income. Somehow the materials and technology we need and use each day need to be created and transported. Somehow we have to live. But does growing the economy that we need to do all of this really need to be environmentally irresponsible? But does being environmentally responsible mean being economically irresponsible?

To both the answer is no.

Sometimes the traditional economic development methods simply do not work any longer. Whereas market driven housing might cost $550,000 to buy a 3 bedroom house in northwest Christchurch, compact housing can cost a fraction of the price; whereas coal, gas and oil contribute substantially to carbon emissions world wide, clean burning rubbish in Waste-to-Energy plants such as those in Europe and the United States can create electricity and reduce wastage at the same time.

Contrary to popular belief environmental related industries actually contribute a substantial amount to the economy. The estimated value of fresh water related tourism and recreational pursuits is $1.7 billion. If well known fisheries and fresh water resources are protected, there is no reason why this figure could not grow further. And it is well known overseas how much New Zealand relies on its environmental image to lure tourists. The tourists themselves are not stupid – they observe how we treat our environment and they are quite happy a few have told me to blow the whistle in their countries of origin if we are not clean.

New Zealand has the potential to be a leading nation in scientific research. The nation that split the atom and developed base isolators to protect buildings from the shock waves of an earthquake, has slipped behind in recent years. This is shown in the mathematical and science performance figures for New Zealand released by the O.E.C.D.The unfortunate war on science that started under the previous Government needs to stop because it is misleading and shows an ignorance of how scientific theory works.

New Zealand can be a leader in clean energy. A few examples of how we can improve our energy are below:

  • The country can invest in tidal energy, of which there is an abundance – an estimated 8,800 megawatts of generating capacity if tidal power were fully harnessed. Unlike hydroelectric, wind and solar power, it relies on the twice daily rhythm of the tidal flow..
  • Micro generation units are popular overseas and starting to become known in New Zealand – they include micro hydroelectric power schemes installed in irrigation races; some New Zealanders are also experimenting with small solar panels so that during sunny periods they can reduce their power bill, and hopefully heat their water at the same time
  • Should Manapouri power station no longer be required by Comalco to run the Tiwai Point smelter new Bluff, then the 850 megawatts it would add to the New Zealand grid would increase available power by about 10%
  • In countries such as Denmark rubbish is burnt in combustion units to generate power

So, this idea of National that we will somehow not be able to keep our emissions down because we will be burning more coal is rather absurd. But it is also silly because the two very forms of fossil fuel that Simon Bridges is concerned Labour and New Zealand First are going to cap are in fact themselves serious sources of carbon emissions.

There is one other source of economic development going forward that New Zealand are yet to realize the development potential of. Housing does not need to be the big palatial structures one sees getting built today. Nor do they need to be on life-style blocks, which I believe are actually a misuse of what could be perfectly good agricultural land for growing fruit and vegetables or light grazing. Micro housing is becoming quite popular. Compact housing packages with just a small block of land can retail for less than 1/3 the price of a standard house.

All in all, I believe the age of smart living is here. We have the means and the know how.

Do we have the will?

Government to end oil and gas permits

On 12 April Prime Minister Jacinda  Ardern announced that Labour, in agreement with its  coalition partners New Zealand First and the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand is not going to issue any more oil and gas permits.

I am concerned that this is just political machinations at work and that just like the National Party with so many issues, not enough thought has been given to how such an announcement will impact on New Zealand. The Government can say that yes it has delivered on its promises and that means it is getting things done – just like National who I notice parroted every announcement former Prime Ministers John Key or Bill English or one of the Ministers made.

Yes, from an environmental stand point this is good news – a good start at least. But let us get real here. I have a number of questions from pure transport perspectives alone, never mind getting into the potential effects on social policy, the energy sector and so forth. Such as:

What thought has been given to how and where non electric vehicles are going to get their fuel from, other than expensive fuel imports from overseas?

What thought has been given to the fact that New Zealanders are grimly hanging onto their Toyota Corolla’s, Surfs and so forth because newer, cleaner vehicles are too expensive?

Even hybrid’s need to come down in cost before they have a chance of becoming plentiful.

People do not seem all that enthused by the advent of plug on points to charge their cars. And the simple idea of having to plug a car in to charge at some point is likely to turn many off from wanting an electric car. All of you who are applauding today’s announcement understand this don’t you?

Will some sort of road/transport/government working group be established to look at biofuels and alternative sources and the issues that New Zealand may confront if it finds a sustainable source?

The Green Party and Labour surely understand that one is unlikely to ever quite get rid of petroleum and diesel. New Zealand, like most western countries is probably not going to fully wean itself off either and that service stations will still be around for the foreseeable future at least.

I am sorry, but unless you can address these questions and others that will arise, I am NOT on board. This is basic planning for New Zealand’s future. Grand sweeping announcements like this look great, but are completely meaningless unless backed up by solid policy and implementation.

Common sense really.

Government to end irrigation funding

Last week it was announced that the public funding of irrigation projects is going to be wound down. The move, which has elicited complaints of a “kick in the guts” from some farmers, and National, has also drawn widespread praise from pro-environment groups and Greenpeace.

I support this move entirely. I do not believe that it is in New Zealand’s interests to have public funding redirected towards irrigation.

New Zealand is at peak dairying. The industry is as big as it is going to get. The environmental cost will be like mining into an unstable slope – one wants the gold to show investors, but are completely oblivious to the danger of dairy herds. One animal may produce as much as 10x the output of a human being in excrement. Vast tracks of the Mackenzie Basin have been or are being converted to dairying. The cost to ratepayers to maintain water quality standards is increasing and tourists are becoming aware of the problems that dairy farming is causing.

Do not get me wrong. Irrigation has its place in New Zealand. However the extent to which it appears to influence economic policy is not proper and nor is it practical. Many rivers are completely allocated in terms of available surface and ground water. No matter how one reallocates the water it will not change the fact that it is 100% allocated and that reallocation is simply re slicing the pie.

Nor will it change the fact that the high intensity usage of water for dairy farming has had a substantial impact on the environment.The effects of this range from a widespread decline in water quality to potential salinisation of aquifers in coastal areas.  In the aquatic environment of fresh water courses such as lakes, rivers and streams, water quality has degraded significantly and this is shown in the reduction of the number of water bodies where one can physically the water. Cyanobacteria forms more readily in water courses whose low flows in summer have been exacerbated by increased water use – it presents as a green-blue algae and is deadly to dogs if consumed.

I also have concerns about the welfare of animals. Not normally something I comment on, but wish to point out with relation to South Island high country. In a harsh sub alpine environment with intense winter cold with large open spaces, grazing stock would find it a challenge staying warm, whilst in summer there would be little shelter from the sun and temperatures which can reach 40°C. Keeping them adequately protected protected when shelter belts that double as wind breaks against northwesterlies have been removed to enable K-line irrigators to work, is a significant concern.

This move, whilst welcome is just the first step, as a comprehensive programme will be needed across New Zealand to undo the potential damage and keep the tourists coming.


Government considers moves to end oil exploration

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