When you're in a hole, keep digging

The questions Energy Minister Phil Heatley should have been asked on The Nation; and why former Minister David Parker, bless him, still doesn’t get it

Energy and Resources Minister Phil Heatley ‘met the press’ on The Nation on Saturday, the day after former Energy Minister and opposition spokesperson David Parker had offered some comments in the New Zealand Herald.

I want to respond briefly to Mr Heatley’s comments, and explore Labour’s, because Heatley, confronted by three senior journalists (each of whom I normally admire) didn't get anything like the fisking he deserved; and Parker and his colleague David Cunliffe need to talk.

Introducing Mr Heatley, host Rachel Smalley referred to a comment she’d heard from economist Cameron Bagry, who was in his turn quoting from a World Bank report.

That report, said Smalley, had ranked New Zealand eighth highest in the world per capita in terms of resources.

This is what Bagry had said:

New Zealand needed to recognise what it has that is world class which include its water resources, potential minerals, tourism and global reputation, he said in an address at the Irrigation NZ Conference in Timaru. ... The World Bank had ranked New Zealand eighth in the world on a capita basis for a country's natural endowment or resource base.

New Zealand ranked highly because of its renewable resources – land and water resources and with world resources shrinking it was where New Zealand needed to be.

As Bagry’s actual quote makes clear, in the context of a discussion on mining and minerals - extractive, non-renewable, and specifically, oil and coal - Smalley had taken the statistic out of context.

Although she tried to qualify it, it was next to useless at best and at worst, downright misleading.

I blogged on this in 2009, when Gerry Brownlee, too, had been waving World Bank reports about, in our national parks.

According to those reports, what makes us rich is our other natural capital, of which the minerals are only one small part: 3 percent of the wealth that saw us (in the report I was referring to in 2009) ranked second in the world only to Saudi Arabia.

(Which raises the other interesting question: does the World Bank calculate that our natural wealth has dropped from second to eighth in that time, just as in the Yale Environment Performance Index, between 2006 and 2012 New Zealand has plummeted from first to 14th?)

If Taranaki, suggested Heatley, can manage its economy so quietly, so successfully, all these decades, without one type of industry (mining) jeopardising the others (tourism, agriculture), why can’t the other 17 prospective basins around New Zealand do the same?

He lulled us with the image of oil tankers slipping in and out of Marsden refinery “while the people of Whangarei are asleep”.

Off Taranaki, the rigs are operating at around 125m deep. Raukumara Basin, off the East Cape, boasts the magnificent depth of 3100m; the others around New Zealand are, on average, the same depth or deeper than the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico (1500m or more), compounded by the fact that we live at the bottom of the world, many months away from relief.

Heatley reassured us that a capping device could be obtained from Australia in a matter of days.

Nobody asked him about the logistics of relocating relief rigs, and drilling to kill the well, an issue which is disputed, but which Greenpeace has done work on.

The first thing, Heatley said, is that this won’t go wrong. We rely on big oil companies to do their job and get it right; we expect that. But of course if accidents do happen, we need to be prepared.

The fact is, the threat if it all goes right is no less large.

If it all goes right - if the oil is found, comes out of the ground, and is burnt - we would be headed for a planet “straight out of science fiction”.

That quote belongs to Bill McKibben, who writes this month in Rolling Stone about “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”, and “three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe,” including how we have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn.

The fossil fuel industry, he writes “holds the power to change the physics and chemistry of our planet, and [abetted by governments] they’re planning to use it”.

Which brings me to, David Parker, former Energy Minister, who shared his party’s views on mining and minerals with the New Zealand Herald:

Labour's finance spokesman, David Parker, says his party's policies on oil, gas and mineral extraction are close to those of the Government. "I don't think we are much different from National," Parker said.

By contrast, Parker’s colleague David Cunliffe delivered an amazing speech on June 23 called “The dolphin and the dole queue,” which stands among the best on resource scarcity and a brighter future that I’ve heard.

Cunliffe talked about creating economic value with less carbon, and said: “we can’t mine and drill our way through a climate-disrupted, resource-depleted future”.

Mr Parker’s candour about the past economic similarity of Labour and National was nice.

But his trouble is that - even if Labour sets its level of ambition at the lowest and most self-interested - if he wants to be the government, Labour’s position on mining is going to have to be more nuanced, if it wants the coalition partner that it needs in the Greens. Otherwise, he won’t be there at all.

Much of the current government’s strategy is fossil fuel-based. If Labour is, at the present time, indeed “not that much different from National”, then that policy is going to have to change.

The issue is no longer: are you for mining or are you against it?

It’s not any longer possible to debate mining vs “environmentalists”, as The Nation attempted to do on Saturday - and the oil, gas and mineral industries would prefer - without asking first: so what are you mining for? And secondly: is it a net benefit, or an insurmountable environmental cost?

Let’s have that debate in the context of real environmental truths, and the problems the world, not just New Zealand, needs to solve - given what we know in the 21st century, not the 19th.

As Cunliffe quite beautifully phrased it, this is politics in a climate of change.


Declaration: Claire Browning is a Forest & Bird Conservation Advocate.