The dirty politics of oil

Oil drilling

News that the Texan oil and gas exploration company Anadarko Petroleum Corporation is to undertake a test drilling program in the Canterbury Basin just off the Otago Peninsula is causing stir here in Dunedin among a good number of residents deeply concerned about the significant environmental and economic risks that such drilling poses to the region. Shell too have plans to explore the Great South Basin for additional oil and gas reserves.

Such highly-charged ventures rarely display politics in its most attractive, reasoned, transparent and democratic guise. One example of this occurred just a few weeks ago (on 10 January) when the intelligent and responsible folk who make up the St Martin Island Community were ordered, by the Otago Regional Council, to take down a ‘No Drill’ sign (erected in late October 2013) because, according to the ORC, the community were in breach of resource consent which states that ‘no advertising signage shall be erected on the jetty’. Now it’s not at all clear to me, or to the SMIC, just how such a sign is an example of ‘advertising’. (It is difficult to imagine such an order being issued for a sign encouraging the All Blacks to thrash their opponents at a game at the ORC’s beloved stadium (once described, in what sounds like a joke, as ‘pivotal to Dunedin and Otago’s future’; similar rhetoric was being used to sell the drilling program: ‘A key to Dunedin’s future prosperity could lie buried beneath the seabed just 60km off the coast’, we are told), or a sign welcoming cash-carrying Chinese tourists to Dunedin, or a sign championing the importance of brushing one’s teeth without the use of rat poisons, for example. And yet a ‘No Drill’ sign appears to me to be of much the same order.)

At the most recent meeting of the SMIC Council, it was decided that an appeal of the ORC’s decision would be made to the Environment Court asking for a stay on the grounds that the ‘No Drill’ sign is not advertising but ‘a prudent safety message’. Such an appeal has since been lodged and we now await the court’s decision, hoping that common sense and the rule of law (these are not always at odds!) will prevail over all other interests. Certainly any democracy that seeks to legislate against legitimate (i.e., non-violent) forms of protest has failed tragically to understand its own virtue.

Saint Martin Island

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