Continuing New Zealand’s proud history of protests at sea, attempts by Texan oil giant Andarko to start deep-sea oil drilling are being blocked by a tiny sailing boat.
Thousands came out to NZ's west coast beaches on November 23 to support the Oil Free Flotilla in its stand against Anadarko. More than 1000 gathered for the main event at West Auckland's iconic Piha beach, carrying colourful home-made banners with messages such as "We love our beaches", "No drill, no spill" and "Anadarko go home".
A spirited traditional Maori haka also took place to underline the determination of deep-sea oil drilling opponents. Large crowds gathered at other west coast beaches, including 750 at Raglan, the nearest town to the proposed drilling site.
Greenpeace's Steve Abel told the NZ Herald that the protest was "amazing".
The company plans to begin exploratory drilling at depths of up to 1600 metres about 110 nautical miles (185 kilometres) from the North Island coastal town of Raglan, with an untested drilling ship. In response, the Oil Free Seas Flotilla, made up of six sailing vessels, has sailed to the drilling area.
When the drilling ship Noble Bob Douglas arrived at the proposed drilling site on November 19, the Greenpeace yacht Vega (which took part in protests against nuclear testing in the Pacific) remained on the drilling site. Other members of the flotilla stayed nearby.
Greenpeace NZ executive director Bunny McDiarmid told the NZ Herald: “The sailing vessel Vega will not be moving. We will stay where we are in defence of our ocean, in defence of future generations, in defence of climate.”
McDiarmid said the crew were hoping to meet with the captain of the Noble Bob Douglas to hand over a flag made by children saying “I love my beach”.
“We're here to deliver this children's flag to Anadarko's massive, untested drilling ship. Anadarko have consistently ignored New Zealand.
“They, and the government, have hidden vital information from the people of New Zealand. So let's see if they'll ignore our children.”
Co-skipper of the Vega, former Green Party leader Jeanette Fitzsimons, told TV One News: “We've had a number of communications with the master of the Noble Bob Douglas who repeatedly asked us to move away and tells us we're breaking the law because they want to start operations.
“Well, the whole point of us being here is that we don't want them to start operations because that is putting New Zealand's marine environment and the climate and all our living creatures out here and our coastal communities at risk.”
As well as drawing attention to the dangers of deep sea oil drilling, the flotilla is protesting against a recent law change that makes protesting at sea within 500 metres of an oil rig or drill ship illegal.
The “Anadarko amendment” was rushed through parliament in May in response to pressure from oil companies. It followed an earlier seaborne campaign off NZ’s east coast, which resulted in the withdrawal of Brazilian oil company Petrobas from exploration.
On November 20, Daniel Mares, on board another of the flotilla boats, reported that one of the Anadarko support vessels, the Liberian-flagged Bailey Tide, had engaged in dangerous manoeuvres. It moved to squeeze the Vega toward the side of the Noble Bob Douglas, then using its thrusters to create a wash that swung the Vega sideways with its bow dangerously close to the Bailey Tide.
The Vega was able to get safely away from the situation. However, Mares said: “They seem to have a total disregard for safety at sea and the rules of the road at sea, not a good sign for the upcoming inherently dangerous exploratory deep sea oil drilling operations.”
NZ police said that they were “monitoring the situation”.
AnAdarko is being allowed to drill despite not having released its Emergency Response Plan to NZ’s Environmental Protection Authority. This raises questions about the legality of the drilling.
A key piece of information ― the spill modelling showing the possible impacts of a deep sea oil spill ― has also not been released. In response, Greenpeace released its own spill model, using the industry standard, which paints a grim picture of the disastrous effect the oil spill would have in a country where 75% of the population lives within 10km of the coast.
New Zealanders have seen the results of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, in which vast quantities of oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days before the spill was capped. Anadarko, as a quarter share investor in the well, was found jointly liable and recently agreed to pay BP $5.5 billion as part of the legal settlement.
The Deepwater Horizon was drilling in 1500 metres of water, shallower than the proposed drilling site off NZ.
Last year, the cargo ship Rena ran aground off the coast near Tauranga. It spilled up to 350 litres of oil, killing wildlife and affecting the fishing and tourist industries in the area.
In a TVNZ online poll conducted in response to the Oil Free Seas protest, 80% supported the flotilla’s actions.
The Green Party and the Mana Party have both stated their total opposition to deep sea drilling. Labour Party leader David Cunliffe, in a statement released November 21, said: “Labour supports the use of our natural resources if they can be extracted safely, if communities have their say, if there are the resources available to clean-up an oil spill and if the companies involved take full responsibility for any damage done.”
However, Cunliffe criticised the National Party government for its bid to cover up the risks of an oil spill.
Greenpeace NZ’s Simon Boxer, in an October 27 NZ Herald article, wrote: “If one of Anadarko's exploratory wells did start to leak, it would be Maui's dolphin (of which there are less than 150), the world-famous surf break at Raglan, West Coast fishermen, our tourism industry and New Zealand's clean and green image, that would bear the direct consequences.
“In turn, all those businesses that depend on New Zealand's brand, including those that sell food, and beverages overseas, would be affected …
“Rather than spending millions on trying to attract the world's deep water oil industry to New Zealand, the Government would be far better working to encourage the development of renewable energy technologies.”