Brownlee’s energy strategy: dig and burn

By Bryan Walker 26/07/2010

The newly released Draft NZ Energy Strategy (PDF, web) is a winding back of the clock from the substantial statement released under the previous government only three years ago. When announcing early in his term as Minister that a new strategy was required Gerry Brownlee complained of the old one:

’You need only read the foreword of the NZES…‘Sustainability’ and ‘sustainable’ are mentioned thirteen times, ‘greenhouse gas’ is mentioned four times, and ‘climate change’ is mentioned three times. That is all very good, but security of supply rates only one mention. Affordability is not touched on at all. Nor is economic growth.’

In his foreword to the new document that has all been put right. ‘Renewable’ is admittedly mentioned twice and ‘environmental responsibility’ once, but where David Parker diluted the economic message by waffling on about sustainability, Brownlee cuts to the chase in his first sentences:

’The overarching goal of the Government is to grow the New Zealand economy to deliver greater prosperity, security and opportunities for all New Zealanders.

’New Zealand is blessed with extraordinary energy resources, which have the potential to make a significant contribution to our prosperity and our economic development.’

Most of us know, he grants, that we have an abundance of renewable resources. Geothermal, hydro, wind, waves, tides, sun. But he has further news for us, and this is where the foreword really comes to life:

’What is less well known is that along with our renewable resources, we also have an abundance of petroleum and mineral resources. More than 1.2 million square kilometres of our exclusive economic zone are likely to be underlain by sedimentary basins thick enough to generate petroleum. Recent reports put New Zealand’s mineral and coal endowment in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

’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’.

Forget sustainability and all that idealistic carbon-neutral stuff. ’The Government’s goal is for the energy sector to maximise its contribution to economic growth.’ Which is not to say there isn’t a place for environmental responsibility of course, in fact he puts it down as a fourth priority, after developing resources, promoting energy security and affordability, and achieving efficient use of energy.

The themes set out in the foreword are carried through into the document itself where developing petroleum and mineral fuel resources takes pride of place, ahead of developing renewable energy resources and embracing new energy technologies. The government will help petroleum exploration along by funding seismic studies in prospective basins and also developing a pathway to ’realise the potential of New Zealand’s gas hydrates endowment.’ New Zealand’s extensive coal resources currently contribute to electricity supply security. Coal is also utilised by industry and is exported. Coal could potentially contribute to the economy in other ways, such as through the production of liquid fossil fuels, methanol or fertiliser such as urea.

A slight recognition that there could be a hitch to coal development: ’This potential is more likely to be fully realised if an economic way to reduce high levels of greenhouse gas emissions is found.’ But there’s a likely solution: ’Carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) will potentially be an effective way of utilising resources while reducing CO2 emissions.’

What does one say to a government who at this stage of awareness of the perils of climate change puts oil, gas and coal at the top of its plans for energy development?  The document allows a place for renewable energy development but gives no indication that government support will compare with what is being put into easing the path to fossil fuel extraction. At the head of the areas to which government research funding will be directed, for example, is ’research to improve petroleum and mineral extraction’.

If this is the Minister’s idea of preparing us for a prosperous future one has to wonder what kind of intellectual world he is inhabiting. Certainly not one that has much room for climate science or takes seriously the urgent imperative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Nor is there much sign that he sees any economic potential in the development of renewable energy that can compare with what he’s convinced still lies with fossil fuels.

Yet much of the document has sensible enough things to say about the prospects for renewable energy generation and deployment.  And we can perhaps be thankful that the government is retaining the ’aspirational but achievable’ target of 90% of electricity generation being from renewable sources by 2025, albeit hedging it with a number of caveats. (Though having read the 2006 report of the Royal Society Panel on Sustainable Energy I fail to see why the target should not be 100% renewable generation by 2020).

In fact the draft document looks a bit like a splice job.  One wonders whether the Minister has insisted on his outdated views being there even if they are in contradiction to more environmentally aware thinking. No contradiction, he will no doubt reply. Look at the words:

  • the economy grows, powered by secure, competitively-priced energy and increasing energy exports (presumably oil and coal), and
  • the environment is recognised for its importance to our New Zealand way of life.

There it is in a nutshell.  Government policy.  Economic development first. Environmental responsibility next.  It’s the wrong order where as enormous a threat as  climate change is concerned, which  incidentally impacts on a good deal more than ’our New Zealand way of life’ — it can’t be comfortably domesticated like that.

The document is a draft. Public submissions are sought. Gerry Brownlee says he looks forward to your feedback.  Make sure you get some to him by 2 September.