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The Greenpeace-commissioned report looking at the estimated impact of a deep water oil well leak in New Zealand waters has received a lot of attention this morning and for good reason.

In the whole argument over oil exploration and whether we should drill or not, there’s been little science-based public discussion of the impact of a spill. Sure, the likes of Anadarko have done the modelling and the Government has its own models, but nothing has been made public that lays out the scenarios as clearly as the animations created by DumPark Ltd, the Wellington-based science data company that Greenpease commissioned to do the modelling.

OIlspillmap-Day120-hoki-300x213Over at the Science Media Centre, we rounded up commentary on the Greenpeace report. Not all of it is positive – for instance Dr Rosalind Archer of the University of Auckland said:

 The report gives no evidence that 40,000 barrels per day spill rate [the largest of the rates modelled] is reasonable for a New Zealand well… my assessment is that this report is likely to overstate the impact of a possible blow out in New Zealand waters.

Dr Willem de Lange, of the University of Waikato said:

The study is a reasonable and credible assessment of the potential impacts of the scenarios modelled. There is, however, no risk analysis of the likelihood of these events occurring, and, hence, the risks are not portrayed.

And Dr Ross Vennell of the University of Otago commented:

The predictions appear to be a reasonable first attempt to estimate the extent of a worst case spill from deepwater sites in NZ. It would require more work to clarify and expand on these predictions.

So a mixed response to the report. Modelling something like oil spills is tremendously complicated and rests on a number of assumptions – such as the nature of the spill, the rate of flow of oil, the sea and weather conditions in the period after the spill and the ability to successfully response to a spill with a relief well and containment methods.

Greenpeace seems to have presented a worst-case scenario that many in the oil industry believe has a tiny probability of happening. That’s fine, the worst case scenario is as bad as it gets and we do need to know what the implications of that would be so we can decide if we are willing to live with the risk, however small.

At least we are now having a science-based discussion in public on the potential impact of an oil spill. For the first time in prime time news slots this morning I heard discussion of rates of oil flow, barrels per day spillage, “weathering of oil” and well capping technology that has been developed since the Deep Water Horizon oil spill. This type of discussion is far more illuminating than the woeful exchange between John Campbell and energy minister Simon Bridges a couple of weeks back on Campbell Live. Bridges did himself few favours in his aggressive and defensive performance that night.

Good on Greenpeace for taking the initiative in commissioning Dumpark to undertake this work, then being willing to have the models subjected to independent peer review by experts chosen by the Science Media Centre.

As a result the issue, finally, seems destined to move beyond the philosophical debate of whether extracting fossil fuels is the right move for the country, to whether we can accurately quantify the risk, the factors that would determine the impact of a spill and the technology that might be employed to respond to a spill.

Hopefully the release of Greenpeace’s report will encourage other groups with a vested interest in the issue to release their own models for public scrutiny. Let us have as much information, in a user-friendly format available, so the public can make an informed call when it decides whether deep sea oil drilling in New Zealand waters is worth the risk.

The New Zealand Oil Spill Map

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