Labour’s dodgy drilling policy avoids climate reality

By Bryan Walker 17/07/2014

In his interview on TV3’s The Nation last weekend David Shearer declared a Labour Party policy on oil and gas drilling which, like the Government’s, fails to confront the reality of climate change. Drilling will continue. The approval processes will be improved, the regulations will be tight, the money gained will be used well, but drilling will continue. He acknowledged that “at the end of the day” fossil fuels are out. They cannot continue to be our future. But we can use them to transition to renewables. They can remain a strand in our development. ”There’s a potential there and while there’s a potential we should be looking at it.”

Transition is a word which acquires a convenient elasticity in the language of those who argue for the continued exploration for fossil fuels. We all realise that the change from fossil energy can’t happen overnight. There has to be a period of transition. But to use that fact to justify continued new exploration and development of fossil fuels is to rob the transition of all urgency and treat it rather as something we will need to gradually prepare for as fossil reserves are finally exhausted.

The message from the science is clear. If we burn more than a third of the fossil fuel reserves already discovered we will cause a level of warming likely to prove catastrophic for human society.

Political parties and governments which support expanded exploration and development of fossil resources either do not understand the severity of the scientific message or are so consumed by the prospects of economic wealth that they are determined not to heed it.

Earnest discussion about making deep sea drilling safe for the environment by ensuring the availability of technology to deal quickly with a leaking well is beside the point. The far greater danger of deep sea drilling is that any discoveries it results in may be used to delay the move to low-carbon energy we so desperately need. The financial investment is huge and the pressure to ensure a return on it likely to be determined.

New Zealand is not alone in attempting to straddle professed concern about climate change and a willingness to expand the search for more fossil fuels. But that doesn’t make it a defensible position. Its intellectual hollowness is plain. Its consequences if we go on to burn all that is discovered will be disastrous long before we have finished.

I was in the process of reviewing Gabrielle Walker’s book on Antarctica when I listened to the interview with Shearer. I thought of the great West Antarctic ice sheet and its vulnerability the scientists she wrote about are discovering. I wondered if any National Party or Labour Party politicians in New Zealand feel the kind of rising alarm that seems to me the only appropriate response to what the science is revealing.

It’s an alarm which dwarfs the prospect of gaining wealth from further exploration for a fuel that we must learn to manage without at a quicker pace than Shearer seemed ready to contemplate. But evidently it’s an alarm which remains muted for most of our politicians.