Minister wants all options open

By Bryan Walker 12/02/2012

The Minister for Economic Development Steven Joyce had a curious op-ed in the Herald earlier this week. It was aimed at those pesky people who obstruct progress when government tries to remove roadblocks in the way of business development.

And that’s when the problems start to arrive. The people who say “we want jobs” but then in the next breath say “but you can’t do that … you can’t build that there … you can’t expand that … you can’t explore for that there … you can’t live here … you can’t invest in property here – you just can’t do that!”

And very quickly we start limiting our options.

It was all safely general. No specific examples were provided. However, I recognise myself  amongst the people he is complaining about, and am happy to provide some of the detail missing from his article.

But before I do, a couple more quotes to help establish what the Minister is getting at. This paragraph from a little further down in his article:

The reality is you don’t build an economy by lopping off an arm and both legs before you start. A small country like New Zealand has to make the best of all its natural advantages to lift incomes and give more people more chances to make it while staying right here.

And this from the Ministry’s website:

The government’s goal is for responsible development of both renewable and non-renewable energy resources. Developing a mix of energy options positions New Zealand for higher economic growth and a lower-emissions future.

Focused down to one of the non-renewable resources:

The government is prioritising work across eight action areas to ensure that New Zealand gains everything that it can from its oil and gas resources.

To return to the Minister’s complaints about the ’you can’t’ mentality.  Here’s a ’you can’t’ I own to: you can’t pursue the exploitation of fossil fuels with the vigour that the government is showing if you have serious concern at the prospect of global warming. The two are just not compatible. It is quite clear from climate science that if we carry on regardless with digging up coal and drilling for unconventional oil and gas we are running grave risks for the human future.  What does the Minister think? That the science is exaggerated? That the human future is of no consequence?  Who knows what he thinks on this topic?

Of course he throws in the ritual assurances about protecting the environment.

That doesn’t mean you don’t take care. Big developments need to have the right environmental protections and mitigations, industry needs good health and safety law, and foreign investment should be sought where it adds value. Ensuring those safeguards are in place is a far healthier approach than just saying no.

But the only safeguard against climate change is to start cutting greenhouse gas emissions drastically.  In other words, ’just saying no’ to the proposed expansion in the exploration and exploitation of New Zealand’s fossil fuels. If pressed on environmental protections the Minister would no doubt talk vaguely about the ETS or about forestry offsets and so far as fossil fuel exports were concerned would say that the emissions from those were other countries’ responsibility. But the plain fact of the matter is that the fossil fuel we discover and extract will add to the global greenhouse gas emissions. It is hardly an area that we should be identifying as one of promising economic opportunity for our country.

The Minister’s trump card is jobs. ’Do you want jobs or don’t you?’ he virtually asks. It’s a false dilemma and exposes the poverty of the government’s thinking. Of course we want jobs. But who says they aren’t to be found, and by many accounts more plentifully found, in the greening of the economy? In the rapid development of renewable energy? In seriously upscaling the efficiency of energy use? In redirecting the waste stream towards recycling and reusing? Are we so moribund a society that we see no other way forward than perpetuating industries which we should be winding down?

Who is the foremost ’you can’t’ person here? The Minister appears to be saying that we can’t build a thriving economy without chasing fossil fuels, that we can’t measure up to the climate crisis as rationality demands, that we can’t save coming generations from the consequences of our continuing with business-as-usual.

He’s not on his own, of course.  This issue is not being honestly faced anywhere much. Australia’s coal mining industry is thriving, Canada is hell bent on the extraction of tar sand oil, the US is increasing oil and gas drilling. The company of these and many other countries no doubt makes our government feel secure in what it is doing, and makes it extremely unlikely that the people the Minister castigates will carry much weight in the shaping of government policy.

Nevertheless it remains wrong to scorn the warnings of climate science as, in effect, the Minister’s article does. There is very good reason for the ’you can’t’ from those who oppose the redoubled effort to find fossil fuels. He should not dismiss it in populist fashion as just some ingrained negativity standing in the way of business development. Climate change can’t be brushed aside as a minor consideration. It is heavy with consequence for human welfare. The Minister’s airy dismissal of the conviction many now have that we must move our economy away from fossil fuel reliance may not be untypical, but it falls woefully short of the level of responsibility we should expect from our political leaders.