Deep Sea Oil Drilling in NZ : just who is crazy?
I think the time has come to ask the question just who is crazy, regarding exploring for oil off the NZ coast? The numbers coming from climate change scientists vary from being very scary to the “oh shit it’s too late” variety. The very scary numbers suggest that we have around two decades to completely decarbonise the world’s economy. This decarbonisation must be done while there are over 1000 large coal fired power stations on the world’s drawing boards, non-conventional tight oil and gas are being exploited by fracking and the deep ocean scoured for new resources. The “too late” variety include NASA scientist Jim Hansen, who has researched the earth’s past climate to obtain a safe limit of 350 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere. We are now close to 400ppm and so according to Hansen’s numbers we should stop all CO2 emissions immediately and then start sequestering carbon by tree planting and burying biomass as carbon in the soil.
The main task in ensuring a habitable climate for future humanity and at the same time providing energy for our continued social existence is to stop carbon dioxide emissions and transition to a sustainable energy economy. With the present (unsustainable) world economy so closely linked to fossil fuel use it would be clearly very difficult to stop all emissions immediately. Even Jim Hansen realises this and so some years ago he suggested a transition program which envisaged developed countries closing down all coal fired power plants by 2020 and developing countries doing the same by 2030. In addition Hansen is opposed to any further exploration or exploitation of non-conventional hydrocarbons and has been arrested several times for opposing the pipeline to transport oil from Canadian tar-sands to the US. There is of course no evidence that his advice is being followed.
I have been looking at this problem for some years now and it has made me very pessimistic as to our future. Why are people not waking up to the situation and trying to do something about it? How can people go on with their normal everyday lives, ignoring the profound and catastrophic implications of not making an urgent transition away from fossil fuels? Is there something wrong with the way the human mind is constructed that they can see the problem but be paralyzed in terms of action? My pessimistic reputation in this regard led to a group of students at the University of Otago running a lecture titled “Cheer up Bob” in which they tried to prove to me that change was possible and that the young people of the city of Dunedin were up to the challenge. This year Greenpeace NZ, together with concerned residents of New Zealand, formed a consortium called “The Oil Free Seas Flotilla” to challenge the exploration for deep sea oil and or gas by Anadarko and Shell in NZ waters. The deep sea oil and gas that they are looking for are not part of the world’s known reserves and so by all scientific accounts cannot be used if we are to keep our climate habitable.
The Oil Free Seas Flotilla group are thus trying to preserve the climate of the earth for future generations. They want an orderly transition to sustainable energy sources that don’t emit the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. They are not wanting to shut down the world economy by preventing all existing emissions, they are not protesting the existing extraction of known resources in Taranaki . They realise that there needs to be clear market signals that a transition away from fossil fuels is the only way to go. That NZ should be investing in wind energy, solar energy and its biomass resources. One of my recent students found for instance that it is currently economic to put solar PV on your rooftop in nearly all parts of NZ.
The opposition to deep sea oil drilling does not want to stop conventional oil from being exploited especially for uses that don’t emit carbon into the atmosphere. In fact the best use of remaining oil reserves may well be to use them for construction materials, pharmaceuticals, fertiliser production and lubricants. Future generations may suggest to their parents on past use of oil “you actually used to burn this valuable stuff?”
In terms of the possible discovery of gas instead of oil, it is true that natural gas is a lower greenhouse gas emitter than coal by weight, so its use in power stations is to be preferred, but if this means that world gas use will increase, as it is at present, then a 50% improvement in emissions reduction will be wiped out in a mere ten years and such a substitution will not send the right signals in terms of a transition to sustainable energy sources in the time available, which is also of the order of ten years. In addition such a substitution will deliver profits to the very companies, such as Anadarko, that will use the money to search for yet more oil and gas and so again deliver more CO2 into the atmosphere. Finally the delivery of the gas is likely to come just too late. We have to stop the cycle of fossil fuel dependence, not extend it. The gas transition argument is just not valid.
So is the protest against oil drilling a crazy objective or is it that the people ignoring the climate change problem that are crazy? That is the serious question that must be answered by the residents of New Zealand. Are short term profits for a few worth the incredible risks involved? Certainly vested interests want to continue the status quo, that is using all the oil, gas and coal until the earth is wrung dry by fracking, deep sea oil and gas extraction and mining the dirtiest coal that can be obtained from the ground. The two thirds or so of existing fossil fuels that cannot (should not) be extracted add up to hundreds of trillions of dollars of profits. But what do profits mean when the earth is uninhabitable? Or more to the point what do dollars mean when there is nothing to spend them on?
While the visible signs of global warming are increasing every year, world governments are obviously incapable of acting to mitigate climate change. Why? – Due to their focus on economic growth and their subservience to the fossil fuel lobby. Thus unless the general population of all countries, including NZ, express their concern by protesting and trying to stop the insanity, governments will continue not to act. It may be that to just sit on your backside vaguely contemplating the problem and not protest is crazy.
Guest post by Associate Professor Bob Lloyd. He is Director of the Energy Studies and Energy Management degrees in the Physics Department, Otago University, Dunedin.