Deepwater oil on Nature’s Coast

Two offshore spills in less than a month – but New Zealand is still drifting in a policy and legal vacuum when it comes to deepwater oil prospecting and production

Kapiti coasters like to think of their home as Nature’s Coast – an endless strip of sun-scorched, dark sand in summer, a windswept tumble of driftwood in winter, stretched between the sharp, steep slopes of west coast North lsland hills that almost stumble across a ribbon of railway, highway and houses and into the heaving waters of the Tasman sea.

Earlier this month, the coasters woke to a very un-natural experience: black and brown globules of oil littering 45 kilometres of Nature’s Coast, from Mana Marina to Otaki.

Strolling the beach from Waikanae to Peka Peka, Max Willing thought the oil globs looked like blackened driftwood or faesces until they began melting in the sun. A golden retriever frolicking in the water came back to its owner, smelling of diesel and petrol, panting to be hosed down.

Te Horo fisherman Richard Matthews called for a council clean-up, after watching pools of oil sitting on his favourite beach for a fortnight.

Greater Wellington Regional Council harbourmaster, Captain Mike Pryce, opined that it was a small spill that would biodegrade naturally. “The best thing to do is not to walk in the high tide area or let your dogs wander there,” he told the Kapiti News.

Samples of the oil were sent to an Auckland laboratory for “finger-printing” to identify its source. The Council suspected it might have come from a spill of 1,000 litres that was reported on October 18 from the floating production storage and off-take vessel Raroa.

The Raroa, moored by the Maari Field oil rig, about 80 kilometres off the Taranaki Coast, has a ballast system that maintains the stability of the vessel by pumping water around tanks within its hull. A spill occurred when the system pumped sea water with oil in it overboard instead.

The spill was reported immediately to Maritime New Zealand – the agency that operates the Marine Pollution Response Service – by the Maari operators, OMV New Zealand.

News of the Nature’s Coast pollution reached OMV just before they spotted signs of a second spill from the Raroa. On Saturday, 20 November, there was a thin sheen of oil on the water around the storage vessel.

Again, they immediately notified Maritime New Zealand, operators and mobilised a helicopter to fly a trained observer over the sheen. The observer was unable to spot oil on the water.

OMV’s managing director Wayne Kirk says the discharge must have been small. He does not believe the two incidents on the Raroa are linked in terms of cause. The company has stopped operations on the vessel until the cause of the latest spill is identified. Kirk has also apologized for the two spills and sent staff members to clean up the oil on the Kapiti beaches, without waiting for the evidence to prove it came from OMV’s vessel.

So far, there is no trace of any public statement about the spill from the regulators at Maritime New Zealand.

When it comes to marine oil spills originating more than 12 nautical miles off the coast, New Zealand seems to be operating in a policy, legal and operational vacuum.

Maritime New Zealand has been trying to fill the gap by modifying rules governing ships and sea-going vessels to cover the operations of off-shore oil platforms and floating storage vessels in our vast exclusive economic zone, up to 200 nautical miles off-shore

MNZ’s modified rule governing floating storage vessels came into force in April this year, two months after the Maari field rig and the Raroa started production operations. Members of the Petroleum Explorers and Producers Association of New Zealand – including OMV – were still pressing for corrections and clarifications last June.

Since then, Maritime New Zealand has lost three key members of its Marine Pollution Response Service. The MPRS leader and general manager Nick Quinn, national on-scene commander Ian Niblock, and chief environmental analyst Alison Lane have all taken up new jobs in Australia. No new appointments or temporary replacements have been announced.

Environment Minister Nick Smith has now put the pedal down to get his ultimate environmental regulator – the Environmental Protection Agency – fully in place by the 1st of July next year.

Smith had promised the EPA would have a leading role in the management of the exclusive economic zone. There was no mention of such a role in the summary of key regulatory responsibilities he outlined for the agency during the introduction of its empowering legislation last week. Nor was there any mention of his previous promise to have environmental legislation governing the exclusive economic zone in place before Christmas.

During last week’s first reading debate on the EPA bill, Smith’s comments were far more guarded.

The Government is also working on legislation on New Zealand’s exclusive economic zone… The Government is determined to ensure that New Zealand’s marine environment is properly protected as we expand development in that area. We run not only an environmental risk; the gap in regulation leads to uncertainty, and could constrain future economic growth from New Zealand’s extensive marine resources. It is therefore my intention that the Environmental Protection Authority be responsible for the permitting functions that will arise from that proposed exclusive economic zone legislation.

Fine, Minister. But when? Officials identified the EEZ environmental policy gap as long ago as 1987. They have been working on EEZ legislation since 2007, well before Smith started the policy implementation to bring his new Environmental Protection Agency into existence.

No good reason – in fact, no reason at all - has been offered to explain why the EEZ and EPA work streams could not have been combined to bring a coherent legislative package together for consideration by Parliament this month, or to advise what has happened to the study of best international practice for regulating offshore petroleum prospecting and production that was supposed to have been completed last September.

Nature abhors a vacuum. Perhaps, that is why we had deepwater oil on Nature’s Coast this month, and may have more there next month.