Bearing witness: oil at sea

By Bryan Walker 11/04/2011

Pursuing the last drop of oil should not be on the agenda of any country which takes climate change seriously. That’s why I applaud the Greenpeace and Te Whanau a Apanui action in endeavouring — successfully for a time — to stop the Petrobas seismic testing vessel off the East Cape. Potential danger to the marine environment is one of the reasons for the protest, and in the thinking of Greenpeace climate change is the other. The action is part of their longer term campaign against new oil and coal development in favour of a clear orientation to the clean technology which would show New Zealand was serious about moving to a low-carbon world.

Prime Minister John Key, unsurprisingly, doesn’t share my pleasure in what Greenpeace is doing. They are standing in the way of ’better jobs and better incomes’ he says in the Herald. This is legitimate exploration work that could benefit the New Zealand economy. No mention of climate change here. He does acknowledge that there are environmental risks to be considered, but he appears to be thinking only of spills, and believes those risks can be managed.

Admittedly the question of oil is difficult in some respects. There is clearly a need to continue using it while alternative means of powering transport are developed. But when it comes to deep sea drilling, tar sands and shale oil, companies are pursuing oil to the last drop and at great environmental risk and cost. In the case of New Zealand we are putting far more government support into oil exploration in extreme environments than into clean energy development. Desperation (and greed) over a fast diminishing resource is no substitute for the development of the technologies which will all too soon become another exercise in desperation if we don’t start setting them in place now.

The government plans are unlikely to be more than temporarily held up by the Greenpeace action. One way or another the protest flotilla will be dispersed and the survey will resume. The mantra of jobs and incomes will continue to be repeated and the environmental risks downplayed. If there is oil there (and I, unpatriotically, hope there isn’t) it will be drilled for, brought to land, and burned, unless by that time the world has woken up to the danger of what we are doing.

Does this make the Greenpeace action rather pointless?  Not in my worldview. It is in the Quaker tradition of ’bearing witness’, a term Greenpeace is happy to use. Governments can spurn the message, but at least it has been delivered: dramatically and disruptively perhaps, but with an underlying quiet clarity of purpose which hopefully will have many New Zealanders thinking about the wisdom of the government’s course.

You can see a short video of the action and a statement from Greenpeace climate campaigner Vanessa Atkinson here.