Filthy rich: our developing energy strategy

Does this government’s ‘developing country’ shtick, or our luck in being small, give us the moral authority to dine richly on oil and coal?

Gerry Brownlee’s reminiscing, about old boyhood days. Shame, when the best you can offer your country, after nine years’ Opposition thinking time, is a 1965 policy.

The draft New Zealand Energy Strategy (NZES), and other offerings from Brownlee’s Energy and Resources portfolio, show his insistence on developing fossil fuel resources. He wants to promote security of supply, and economic step change, both good and necessary things. New Zealand has rich resources: West Coast coal; Southland lignite; deep water oil (probably).

The first draft NZES priority is to “develop resources”. Ranked first among those resources are “petroleum and mineral fuel resources”: “For too long now we have not made the most of the wealth hidden in our hills, under the ground, and in our oceans. It is a priority of this government to responsibly develop those resources”.

The order may or may not be significant, but you have to assume it is, in a numbered list of priorities, titled "structure of the draft New Zealand Energy Strategy" [p 7]. Environmental responsibility takes fourth and last place.

If it’s fine for the Energy Minister to dust off and publish dumb ideas — as has been his habit — I daresay I can too. So what follows is perhaps impractical; I am moderately confident it’s an argument I’ll lose. Nonetheless, it’s persistent, in the nature of romantic treasures.

Can we, in clean green conscience, keep digging for coal and drilling for oil, postponing the inevitable, and increasing the global carbon burden? How do we justify that, to the rest of the world? I don’t believe this is being properly factored in, or factored in at all, when we speculate on the benefits.

The draft NZES was, in some ways, a pleasant surprise to me. I enjoyed Mr Brownlee in Opposition, and I wish now he'd stayed there. However, things might have been worse. He might, in Jeanette Fitzsimons’ absence, have repealed the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Act 2000; I believe he was thinking about it.

Although the two halves of the document (the second half being the draft Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy) seem to have been written by different people — it says they’re ‘companions’ but, I daresay, not close ones — the draft NZES does acknowledge the economic role and importance of energy efficiency.

And there are some specific targets, for energy efficiency and conservation savings: if Brownlee's still around in five years, he can be held accountable against them. Though in the absence of mid-term milestones, we risk wasting a whole further five years, and being no further advanced.

“As New Zealanders, we pride ourselves on being nimble and quick to adopt new technologies and to develop leading technologies,” the draft NZES boasts. We may pride ourselves on it, but evidence suggests we don’t do it, in the energy context. Nothing about these draft strategies seems likely to change that.

“The Government’s goal is for New Zealand to make the most of its abundant energy potential, for the benefit of all New Zealanders. This will be achieved through the environmentally-responsible development and efficient use of the country’s diverse energy resources.”

This is, arguably, doomed to fail. The first sentence is incompatible with the second, in this sense: it’s not environmentally responsible to further develop coal and lignite and oil at all. If “best practice in environmental management for energy projects” was truly our aspiration, we would not do it.

Mr Brownlee wants to have his cake, and eat it. Mostly, he wants to eat it. There’s even a touch of that in Green Party policy. They’re anti-coal, but for oil, propose two pre-requisites, that don’t rule out drilling for it: robust environmental protections, to manage the risk; and generous resource taxing, to ensure the benefits flow to New Zealand, not offshore.

The possibilities are thrilling. Rich countries have the luxury of protecting their environments, and lavishing social justice. Perhaps, oil-drilling in our waters would delay the need to exploit more damaging fuel sources: tar sands, for example, and lignite. But what it also, surely, delays is the economy of cleaner sources.

A year or so ago, Nick Smith was consulting on our 2020 emissions reduction target, and painting New Zealand as a developing economy, by our emissions profile and GDP. Matthew Hooton, on Nine to Noon, has been known to locate us once or twice in the second world rather than the first.

Mr Brownlee’s policy, on behalf of the government, fits this ‘poor country cousin’ shtick: the rich world arrived on the dirty quick carbon route, and we need to follow, because we don’t know any other way, and can’t be bothered right now trying to find it.

Already, we’re pushing our luck with dairy methane. Now we want to add petroleum, coal, and lignite. If you scratch the surface of our pristine little country, it is built on dirt.

I don’t know how we can with any credibility then join the climate change negotiation table, to endorse, as we all must:

  1. greening developing economies (because China’s growth, particularly, can’t be globally sustained on the same footprint as ours); and
  2. paying them to protect rainforests, for carbon sequestration (REDD — Reducing greenhouse gas Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation).

If New Zealand wants to characterise itself as a developing economy, isn't that then our task, too: to leave our carbon safely sequestered in the ground, and take on the challenge of developing greenly?

Are we so small, it doesn’t matter? And yet, everyone’s got an excuse.

And finally, if we can’t live well, cleanly — if you have to drill for oil, to get the money, to give effect to the Green manifesto — then surely, it undermines the whole manifesto. Although that, to be fair, isn’t Brownlee’s problem: he’s not a subscriber to it.