Photo es­say: Big oil

The sci­en­tist bat­tling oil drilling in our deep south

Sunday Star-Times - - NEWS -

Lurch­ing through four-me­tre swell in the land of the Roar­ing For­ties, it’s ap­par­ent that oil and gas drilling in the Great South Basin could pose se­vere chal­lenges. This year, Prime Min­is­ter Jacinda Ardern slapped a ban on new off­shore oil and gas ex­plo­ration per­mits – but ex­ist­ing per­mits were al­ready awarded to two for­eign-owned oil com­pa­nies to drill the Basin, which lies south of South­land and to the east of Rak­iura (Ste­wart Is­land).

A spill here would put Rak­iura at risk; lo­cals de­pend on an un­spoiled ma­rine en­vi­ron­ment to sup­port the 40,000 an­nual eco-tourists who tramp, bird-watch and seal-spot.

No com­pre­hen­sive ma­rine mam­mal pop­u­la­tion sur­vey has been con­ducted in the Basin – so this month, I joined the crew of the Rain­bow Warrior to watch Otago Univer­sity Pro­fes­sor of Zool­ogy Liz Slooten wield­ing her hy­drophone, an un­der­wa­ter mi­cro­phone that is a shin­ing ex­am­ple of No 8 wire in­ge­nu­ity. It com­prises a fi­bre-glassed fun­nel with an ex­pen­sive mi­cro­phone, cov­ered by a yoga mat. It works a treat.

Slooten’s face lights up. ‘‘Sperm whale!’’

The Great South Basin is rich in ma­rine bio­di­ver­sity. It boasts right whales, rare New Zealand sea lions, bot­tlenose dol­phins and, in the deeper ocean, sperm, beaked, hump­back, and pi­lot whales, wend­ing their way up the Pa­cific mi­gra­tion high­way. And, of course, spec­tac­u­lar seabirds like al­ba­tross, soar­ing on three-me­tre wing­spans, mol­ly­mawks and shear­wa­ters.

Ex­ploratory drilling in deep areas with­out do­ing a ma­rine mam­mal sur­vey (com­mon prac­tice in coun­tries like the USA) means we have no idea what its im­pact is, says Slooten.

‘‘To say, ‘Yes there’s been an im­pact’ you have to know pop­u­la­tion num­bers be­fore, and com­pare these num­bers to data af­ter. All you have to do to get a per­mit for oil and gas is to prove to MBIE that your com­pany won’t fall over. You have to make a busi­ness case, but not an en­vi­ron­men­tal case, nor do you have to do a thor­ough en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact as­sess­ment.’’

Sit­ting on the list­ing deck of the Warrior, Green­peace cli­mate cam­paigner Kate Sim­cock ex­plains off­shore drilling. First, seis­mic sur­veys map the seafloor re­veal­ing ‘‘bub­bles’’ filled with wa­ter, gas, oil or a mix­ture. Phase two in­volves ex­ploratory drilling into these ‘‘bub­bles’’.

Re­search sug­gests that noise from seis­mic sur­veys af­fect 37 ma­rine species in­clud­ing whales, tur­tles, and fish. Con­sid­ered a ‘‘se­ri­ous ma­rine en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­lu­tant’’ sec­ond only to un­der­wa­ter ex­plo­sions, noise from a sur­vey emits deaf­en­ing booms ev­ery eight sec­onds, stretch­ing 4000 kilo­me­tres. Ex­ploratory drilling, how­ever, is the risky part – 2011’s Deep Wa­ter Hori­zon disaster in the Gulf of Mex­ico was the $65-mil­lion-US-re­sult of an ex­ploratory drill into a high-pres­sure zone.

We’re buf­feted again by the swell. I’m try­ing to keep din­ner down, des­per­ately stroking my Scopo­lamine sea­sick­ness patch be­hind my left ear.

Look­ing up at the al­ba­tross and mol­ly­mawk weav­ing be­tween the un­furled sails, I can’t help but won­der whether the drilling is worth the risk.

Even if they do avoid a spill and find oil be­neath these se­ri­ously rough seas, can we re­ally af­ford to burn it?

A sperm whale’s fluke breaks the wa­ters of the Great South Basin, as crew of the Rain­bow Warrior watch.

A bullers mol­ly­mawk swoops low over the South­ern Ocean just off­shore from Rak­iura.

Green­peace’s Rain­bow Warrior is con­duct­ing its own ma­rine mam­mal sur­vey ahead of pro­posed oil and gas ex­plo­ration in the Great South Basin.

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