Photo essay: Big oil
The scientist battling oil drilling in our deep south
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.