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Dr Mike Patrick

So what’s the real oil about offshore drilling?

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The recent kerfuffle about Anadarko and its drilling in our EEZ off the South Waikato coast has stirred a veritable pot of misunderstanding and confusion with regard to exactly what environmental approvals are needed for such a venture, and from whom – largely arising from a knowledge vacuum created by Government and the oil industry, but also from deliberately misleading political interests.

A few basic facts:

Anadarko did not need what is known as a marine consent under our new EEZ environmental legislation.  We are currently in a transition period such that all they had to do was provide an environmental impact assessment to the Environmental Protection Authority, who would then evaluate it for “completeness”.  A stupid situation given that no actual approval is required at the moment, but that’s the law!

Secondly, Anadarko had to have in place a plethora of other approvals and permits before it could start drilling, many of which also cover off environmental matters that you would expect the EPA to evaluate.  These include:

  1. a safety case, pursuant to the Health & Safety in Employment Act.  The safety case addresses how the well will be set up, drilled, completed, and abandoned.  Included within all of that extremely technical engineering information is how the operator will prevent a loss of control of the well, aka a blow-out as occurred in the Deepwater Horizon incident.  The safety case is signed off by MoBIE;
  2. if needed, a Biosecurity Act clearance, to ensure that any vessel or rig coming from overseas does not bring to our waters any nasty foreign organisms.  This is signed off by MPI;
  3. a discharge management plan which includes a marine oil spill response plan.  This addresses the storage and use of all chemicals and agents aboard the rig/vessel, how the operator will prevent these from spilling into the sea, and what they will do in the event of a spill.  This includes reaction to any oil lost from the well.  This document is signed off by Maritime NZ.

The EPA cannot “re-approve” these plans and documents once they have been signed off by the other Government agencies.  However they must, and can only, assure themselves that these plans and approvals are in place, and that they do indeed cover off environmental matters of relevance for consideration within the purview of the EEZ legislation.  EPA and other relevant agencies have established a rigorous inter-departmental process to facilitate this.

With regard to the possibility of a spill of the magnitude and duration of the Deepwater Horizon occurring here, we have to ask do we have that size of reservoir, that type of oil (light), and under those sorts of pressures (very high) that resulted in that massive spill when well control was lost.  The answer is probably not – many of our oils here are very waxy, are not under huge pressure, and indeed have to be “coaxed” from underground including by using pumping and sometimes heating.

Should Anadarko or any other operator be expected to have the capability to clean up such a spill, should it occur?  Of course not, no COUNTRY on earth has that capability, so why should we expect it of a single company.  The USA required international assistance for the Deepwater Horizon, including from New Zealand.  This is how the marine oil spill response system is set up.  Anadarko’s spill response capability will be limited to a very tiny fraction of the Deepwater Horizon spill, for various reasons but in particular because of limitations of sea state and weather, and limited capacity for equipment and response personnel out on the water.  If a spill larger than Anadarko’s capability occurs, it is the New Zealand national marine oil spill response plan that kicks in, the same one used to clean up the Rena spill – and part of that plan includes pre-arranged agreements and contracts with overseas interests and agencies for assistance should that be required.

It should be noted here that the latest marine oil spill risk assessment (found on the Maritime NZ web site) shows that the biggest risks of large spills in New Zealand waters are associated with merchant shipping, and as well the ports of Whangarei (because of the refinery) and Taranaki (oil exports out of New Zealand).  The offshore oil exploration industry is a very minor risk.  However that’s not to say that a spill of significant magnitude would never occur – it might, and the environmental impacts could be catastrophic, worse even than the Deepwater Horizon, especially if the spill happened close to shore.  That is why every care must be taken to ensure prevention, via the safety case and its enforcement, and having credible and effective clean-up capability.