Jacinda Ardern’s April 2018 ban on new oil exploration permits put New Zealand’s vast EEZ off limits to new oil and gas exploration … except for a few areas where permits were released before the ban.
OMV possesses exactly half of these permits. The Austrian oil giant has just begun exploratory drilling in Taranaki, and has just been granted approval from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to drill in the deep waters of the Great South Basin this summer.
Searching for more oil and gas is an obvious threat to the climate, but we also face an additional risk. OMV’s exploratory drilling in the deep and remote waters of the Great South Basin opens up the terrifying possibility of a large scale oil spill in New Zealand waters.
In 2010, BP’s disastrous Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico focussed the world’s attention on the devastating environmental and economic consequences of a deep sea oil drilling disaster.
There are some scary parallels with what OMV plans to do. It’s deep, it’s exploratory, and it’s far from help should anything go wrong.
One of the reasons the Deepwater Horizon blowout was so catastrophic was that it was in deep water, which made it extremely difficult to cap.
The cost of drilling in deeper water is not linear with depth; it increases exponentially. So too the risk of a blowout also increases with depth. The challenges faced are significant and complex: from the rig to the deepest section of the well.
In New Zealand, the current deepest production well is only 125 meters below sea level. In the Great South Basin, OMV plans to drill at water depths of around 1300m.
Very little is certain about the type of hydrocarbons present or the pressure of a potential reservoir prior to the first well being drilled. They just don’t know what they’ll find.
The source of the Deepwater Horizon disaster was an exploratory well.
Then there’s the question of oil spill response preparedness.
OMV’s Tawahaki-1 drill site in the Great South Basin is 85 nautical miles offshore from Dunedin – twice the distance the stricken Deepwater Horizon was from shore. And it’s in a region with very little exploration infrastructure.
The EPA decision seems fatally optimistic when they say “…we are satisfied that Maritime New Zealand and other agencies have the plans, structures, processes, access to equipment, and financial resources to respond to an oil spill event should one occur.”
The Rena oil spill showed us how unprepared New Zealand is for such an emergency, and the oil spilled there was only a fraction of what could be spilled by a deep sea drilling blowout.
The Deepwater Horizon response had around 4,100 kilometres of containment booms, and deployed 47,000 people and over 6,000 vessels including dozens of purpose built response ships of up to 70 meters in length.
Maritime New Zealand has just three 11-metre flat-bottomed inner harbour aluminium boats to service the whole country.
The EPA goes on to say:
“We accept that the overall environmental effects on the biological environment, existing interests, and cultural values from a significant oil spill event could be extensive”
No shit. The deepwater horizon blowout disgorged 650,000 tonnes of oil.
So how bad would a spill be? Bad, really bad. But it’s hard to say for sure.
The OMV’s spill modeling assumes any blowout would take a maximum of 21 days to cap, but the Deepwater Horizon blowout lasted 87 days.
Without adequate oil spill modelling, we can’t get an accurate idea of what the impact of an oil spill by OMV this summer could be. But in 2013, Greenpeace commissioned modelling of an oil spill at Anadarko’s ‘Caravel Prospect’ drill site off the Otago Coast near where OMV plans to drill this summer.
It painted a terrifying picture of what could happen if a blowout were to occur there…
From day 1, thousands of barrels of oil could flow into the ocean every day. To stop the spill, a relief well would need to be drilled. Rigs capable of doing that in deep water are highly unlikely to be available in New Zealand to do the drilling, so an available rig will have to be located and contracted from overseas.
On day 4 the spill response is overwhelmed. Maritime New Zealand is responsible for responding to the spill. After only four days, it is likely that their dispersant supplies will have run out and that their three small boats, if they can even make it to the area at all, will have been overwhelmed, any additional help will need to come from offshore.