By Richard Harman (author)
Despite the Prime Minister’s surprise appearance yesterday at a Greenpeace rally campaigning for an end to oil exploration and drilling she later hinted that exploration would not stop.
Meanwhile, all existing oil drilling could continue.
Her appearance at the rally at Parliament initially raised suggestions that the Government might seek to stop all drilling.
She told the rally on Parliament's forecourt that the Government was “actively considering an end to oil exploration.”
She had delayed her arrival at a lunch for Indonesian President Joko Widodo to personally receive a 42,000 signature petition organised by Greenpeace calling for an end to oil exploration, drilling and seismic testing.
“It was important to be here,” she said.
“It was important to stand in front of you and do what Governments should do and be held to account on the toughest decisions that we face as a nation but also as a world.”
She said she needed more time.
"We are working hard on this issue, and we know it is something that we can’t afford to spend much time on but we are actively considering it now.”
That comment sent a shudder through some parts of the oil industry who noted that the Greenpeace petition called for an end to “oil drilling”.
But four hours later Ardern told her weekly press conference that the Government was simply undertaking a regular review of whether to offer any more blocks of ocean for tender for oil exploration.
Within hours the effect of the political theatre of her forecourt appearance had dissipated and it was business as usual out on the protest lines.
Shortly after the press conference, one branch of the anti-oil protest movement announced it was planning direct action against an oil industry conference in Wellington next week.
If they heard Ardern’s comments at her press conference, they would have been unlikely to have been impressed.
“The point I made out on the forecourt today is that we are in the process of actively considering, as every Government does round this time of year, how we will deal with future block offers,” she said.
“So that is the decision we have to make.
“And as I say every Government comes to that point around this time of year where they consider what will be included in a block offer and what won’t and where it will apply.
“So when I referred to active consideration that’s the process and stage that we are at at the moment, but we are looking at future block offers.”
Asked about the people at the protest who considered her “actively considering” statement bold, she said: “Well, we are actively considering what we do in the future which is what they are asking us to do.
“What I am pointing out is that every Government around this time of year actively considers how it will manage block offers and that is what we are doing.”
Ardern said the “active consideration” would take place quickly.
But she left the clear impression that there would be more block offers.
"At the moment we are working on the way that we will manage future block offers, and I need to allow Cabinet colleagues to factor in environmental impacts,. economic impacts and our focus on a just transition.”
One oil company executive suggested to POLITIK that those requirements would be easily able to be met by any exploration that focussed on gas which could be used to replace coal in dairy factories or transformed into methanol or fertiliser --- all of which would lead to a reduction in carbon emissions or have zero impact on emissions.
Part of the challenge the Government faces is that it has limited levers it can use to control the oil exploration industry.
The Minister of Energy and Resources makes the final decision as to which blocks are included in a Block Offer.
Officials screen the bids to ensure that they are likely to comply with legislation and permit conditions.
The decision on which permits are awarded is the responsibility of the Minister.
The Environmental Protection Authority polices the actual exploration activities within the Exclusive Economic Zone.
But consents are only required for any drilling.
The consents are issued by the Authority which has statutory independence from the Minister.
The Government might find it could get the votes to change the EPA Act to provide for more public input into the permit issuance process --- that was part of NZ First's election policies, and the Greens would be sure to support it.
But only the Greens have consistently opposed deep sea oil exploration.
Labour despite appearances to the contrary does not appear to be ready yet to join them.