As black waves wash in to the Mount today from Rena, and political gods laugh in the face of adversity, has the tide turned for our PM and risen for the Greens?

Couldn’t have happened to a nicer man at a better time.

Is this, finally, the hairline crack in the impregnable hull? - will the Rena oil spill be the thing that exposes what lies beneath Mr Key, and swamps whatever public appetite there was for his government's offshore oil policy, little enough at the best of times?

Unless you've been under a rock: Rena ran aground a week ago, last Wednesday. It was one ordinary ship, in the mouth of our largest port; we were blessed by tranquil weather that persisted for a full five days.

Environment Minister Nick Smith says that what we are seeing now was “inevitable after the ship ran aground”. There are some different views: a salvage expert this morning on RNZ said oil recovery could have taken two days - not five. Booms were not deployed around the ship; again, there's dispute about whether they could have been. Eventually some were found for, for example, the mouth of the Maketu estuary, where endangered dotterels and five of our remaining 43 fairy terns live. 43 of those little birds. That is all.

The rock the ship is on, the Astrolabe Reef, is deemed by the regional council to be of “significant conservation value”. Reports this week have described the waters, accurately, as “teeming with life”, “pristine”, with conservationists warning of a. “wildlife tragedy” that will affect whales and seals and many many seabirds - an international scale conservation incident, at the worst time of year.

The Rena’s 1700 tonnes of oil, of which a few hundred have washed into the environment in our "worst maritime environmental incident", is a drop in the ocean compared to how much spewed from the Deepwater Horizon, a year ago in the Gulf.

Whereas the government insists the response was swift, the NZ Herald editorial yesterday called it “distressingly slow”: “Four days passed with no sign of assistance for the ship or efforts to lighten its load or contain the oil slick forming around it.”

The editor, unamused by political efforts to divert attention to "serious questions" about how the boat ran aground, summed up: “How it happened and who was at fault are issues that can wait. Right now we need to know what can be done to refloat the ship or remove its oil and any other pollutants it may be carrying before it breaks and sinks.”

And, “Environmentalists are fairly asking why a country that depends upon oil imports is not better equipped to deal with a maritime emergency. They also wonder how the Government can contemplate offshore oil drilling when the country is so lamentably ill-equipped to deal with a spill.”

One of these was the Environmental Defence Society's Gary Taylor:

“We need to ask why Maritime New Zealand has been so slow out of the blocks when it should have contingency plans in place that are ready to go the moment an incident occurs. No attempts have been made to contain the oil with booms, there seems to be an experiment with dispersal agents, all the equipment required is not available in New Zealand and is being brought from overseas, expertise also seems not available here and is being brought in and no containers have yet been removed. And all this with worsening weather imminent.”

Again, poor battered little NZ - what an 'annus horribilis' it has been - is on the world stage, with tourists’ eyes upon us, for all the wrong reasons. Yesterday we made three different features in the Guardian, the New York Times (twice, including an "On Our Radar" blog), Al Jazeera, the ABC in Melbourne, Swedish radio, the New Scientist, and the Rena item was second most viewed on the BBC.

The bottomless sadness of the environmental disaster is matched only by the equally farcical political response. Yesterday Phil Goff was blacksmithing down in Buller. Sunday - four days after Wednesday - saw a couple of Labour media releases, one picking up on some Green banter from two days earlier, about oil spills in the harbour vs rugby parties on the wharf.

But my favourite was this from the party’s own Jordan Carter on Twitter. 140 characters never spoke so loudly in their silence between the lines: “@GarethMP and the Greens are doing a great job keeping people up to date about #Rena. Shame #NZGovernment isn’t.”

Perhaps Rena, in the way of ill winds, brought  with it a breath of fresh air: finally - finally! - some evidence of self awareness from Labour? Some consciousness that they are not the flavour of the month, and that political grandstanding on the beaches for them, just now, would backfire?

The Greens, by contrast, led by Gareth Hughes and Russel Norman, have been in Tauranga and the media all week - their Tweeting was all about flights in and out of Tauranga, turning the car around from Northland to go to Tauranga, live chat on Facebook last night from #Rena public meeting at Tauranga... but above all, daily challenging the government response or non-response.

In Labour's absence, however well judged that absence, the Greens were left looking like the opposition, and what it does to their electoral fortunes I can’t wait to watch. It brings with it lovely irony and what must be an acute dilemma for them, about salvaging political win in the face of environmental loss.

According to @JohnKeyPM’s Twitter account, "national party leader John Key" happily spent yesterday “helping hammer in the final hoardings”. Not the nails on his political coffin, then? It brought this dry quip from Keith Ng: “Whoever is running the @JohnKeyPM joke account. You have a great sense of comic timing.”

The PM, I know, is perennially relaxed, but with oil washing up on the beaches - Aucklanders’ beaches, like Waihi - I think he ought to be worried.

And worried too about the narrative of "lying". Lying is perhaps a strong word. Let’s say, challenges to the government's - and Key's own - credibility.

In my last offering from Twitter today, there was, fabulously, this. There were the #keylines, including several about Coro St: "John Key heard from somebody at MediaWorks that Coronation St will be on pay TV at 3am if Labour wins". And this, from today‘s Dom Post editorial, which uses the word "dilettante", and says: “sunny-and-confident is in danger of tipping over the edge into flip-and-glib”.

With the PM looking lightweight on heavy oil, the timing for him - in what, but for the RWC, would be an election campaign - could not be worse.

Disclosure: Claire Browning is a Forest & Bird conservation advocate. In her defence, she also notes that she has seen real political journalists in a proper published daily paper - or the Dom Post anyway - turn a single Tweet into a whole article, more than once.

Comments (6)

by Claire Browning on October 12, 2011
Claire Browning

A little something, from Twitter again, to try to convey what words cannot - that bottomless sadness I mentioned:

http://twitpic.com/6z1q9u

by Steve F on October 12, 2011
Steve F

"........Whereas the government insists the response was swift, the NZ Herald editorial yesterday called it “distressingly slow”: “Four days passed with no sign of assistance for the ship or efforts to lighten its load or contain the oil slick forming around it.”

 

 

Okay so how's this for a timeline;

 

Firstly this is a 47,000 ton vessel almost fully laden and some 240metres long. When they run aground, which is thankfully not very often then it follows that very experienced and expert crews are required for salvage. The ship hit the reef not quite flat out, 17 knots or so, last Wednesday. Salvage experts of the ilk alluded to above don't sit around their Rotterdam, Bergen or Antwerp apartments reading the paper and sipping coffee waiting for an accident in NZ to happen. They have to be rounded up. It takes a couple of days. Then another day to get them down here and out to Tauranga. Then a day to work out what the architecture of the ship is, the layout of its labyrinth of pipes and fuel tanks, install equipment and start pumping. That brings us up to Sunday. The operation gets underway. Very heavy fuel oil needs to be extracted from tanks via the pipe network then passed across the sea to a barge. This task is trying in calm conditions. Monday comes around and the weather packs up. The operations are suspended because they are physically impossible to continue. Booms do not work because of the nature of the heavy fuel oil. It sinks and suspends in the ocean beneath the surface. Passes right underneath the booms.

So in terms of the response it is probably about as fast as one could expect given New Zealand's location as a couple of islands at the bottom of the Pacific.

But for the media, it's the governments fault just as it will be when the world cup is packed away in its case and carried off shore to its new home. Which of course unlike this unfortunate maritime disaster will never happen.

by Claire Browning on October 12, 2011
Claire Browning

@phil_goff, chatting to a Papamoa local who's helping to clean up his coast.

by MikeM on October 12, 2011
MikeM

Hi Steve.

"So in terms of the response it is probably about as fast as one could expect given New Zealand's location as a couple of islands at the bottom of the Pacific."

It may be the fastest that could be expected in our current circumstances, but for me it's still premature to suggest that it couldn't be much improved.  I appreciate it's not a simple problem, and perhaps time will confirm that this really is the best we can realistically expect, but I also think it's perfectly reasonable to ask if the response could have been much improved by having a better plan in place.

Compare it with something like the earthquake response. That's a huge thing, but New Zealand's had many decades to think about and prepare for it, and the risk has generally been taken seriously, even if most people hadn't expected it in Christchurch.  Long beforehand, many buildings had been designed and built to not fall down.  When it occurred, it didn't take days for civil defence teams to argue about who was in charge and start running things or for USAR teams to start getting into broken buildings and pulling people out. The necessary experts were available from the beginning or soon after, relevant organisations would almost certainly have had the schematics and simulations they needed to estimate what to expect and where to find people, and in the following days international teams flooded in with pre-arranged protocols to coordinate all the important info. Trained people checked if their close friends and family were okay, sometimes they didn't, and then they got in and did what they were meant to immediately according to the plans that were developed for just such an eventuality, and designed so there wouldn't have to be lengthy periods of complex assessment and thinking about optimal approaches. So many scenarios had already been thought through and prepared for, and that was because serious effort's been put into developing an immediate response plan. Obviously a sad tragedy, but it could have been much much worse if it weren't for lots of effort put in long before it occurred.

I think an oil spill, such as this, is falling more into a category such as Pike River, where maybe the possibility of occurance hadn't been acknowledged seriously enough by those who mattered to have had full resources put into planning for it.  In that case there was no clarity about what to do immediately afterwards, and staff on the ground didn't even have enough info to realise there was a major problem, and took even longer before they decided to call in help, and then the lack of structured planning in advance meant the only response framework was one optimised for more land-based search and rescue, and for a while it wasn't even clear who was in charge.

In the Rena incident, shouldn't salvage experts all be known in a phone list, woken up and be immediately shuttled to nearby pre-arranged teleconferencing centres around the world in a matter of hours, being fed all the data we should already know they'd need, collected by the equipment and skills that we should maybe be keeping locally? Even if that means we're paying a million or so a year for certain kinds of people to be on call at certain times. If specially trained and experienced crews are needed, can we make sure there's adequate training for the bulk of the most important skills to be available on near-enough notice to catch a spill when and where it occurs around our coast? Did anyone who mattered even know what those skills were, and where to find them, before this occurred? Why isn't there adequate equipment kept on standby near all our major ports and shipping lanes?

I appreciate that some or all of this might be unrealistic, or might come at a much higher cost than what's worth paying, but I think they're valid questions to ask.  Before it happened, a response such as what we're seeing now was probably considered "good enough", and I'm sure it still is by some.  There's also a lot to be asked for how this accident might have been prevented before it happened. To respond, though, it's been necessary to think and to consult to develop a plan, because there's (apparently) not already a book on the shelf of everyone who could potentially be involved that contains 200 pre-designed scenarios and instructions for what to do immediately afterwards.

Likewise I'm sure there are a variety of other potential major incidents that we might need to just sit down and think about what they might be, and make sure there is a good plan for responding. It sucks to wonder in hindsight.

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