New Zealand offshore drilling rig prompts furious backlash from climate activists

The arrival of a new offshore drilling rig in New Zealand, a year after the country declared a climate emergency, has prompted a fresh wave of anger at the government’s alleged “hypocrisy” and “cynical politics” on climate change.

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Photograph: Agustín Marcarian/Reuters

Keeping fossil fuels in the ground was the most basic element of tackling climate change, Greenpeace said, while #SchoolStrike4Climate movement activist Sophie Handford said allowing more oil and gas extraction was “immoral”.


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Prime minister Jacinda Ardern has referred to climate change as her “nuclear-free moment”. In 2018 the government banned the issue of new permits for offshore exploration for oil and gas, and in December 2020 it declared a climate emergency.

Existing oil and gas exploration and development permits remain valid, however, and companies can still apply for permits for onshore exploration.

“The most basic premise of action on climate change is keeping fossil fuels in the ground,” said Greenpeace spokesperson Adam Currie. “If we can’t do that most basic thing, not only are we failing, we’re failing before the first step.”

Handford said “the government needs to put their money and action where their mouth is”.

The new offshore drilling rig, run by oil and gas company OMV, will operate under a permit predating the ban. It will be transported to the mature Māui B gas field off the coast of Taranaki in the coming days, where it will complete “development drilling”.

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In a statement, OMV said the rig would help redevelop the Māui B field and that, “Natural gas is a vital part of the energy mix and a key bridge in the transition to renewable energy sources.”

OMV declined to comment regarding the criticism of the project.

In a report last year, the International Energy Agency said reductions in gas, oil and coal production would be necessary to limit global warming to 1.5C and achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

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Emily Bailey, a spokesperson for Climate Justice Taranaki, said: “A lot of us are just so sick of this [drilling] … It just props up this crazy economy which is driving us to extinction.” Bailey believed the rig’s arrival showed the government’s climate policy was “weak and insufficient”.

Allowing continued oil and gas development is “crazy”, said Currie, who asserted that by not restricting oil and gas drilling, the government was playing “cynical politics, and isn’t doing what is needed to uphold our collective futures”. While it has no immediate protest plans, Greenpeace would not rule out acting against the rig.

In November, a group of law students filed a lawsuit in Wellington’s high court against Megan Woods, the minister of energy, after she approved two new onshore oil and gas exploration permits, alleging the decision was inconsistent with the government’s legal obligations under the country’s Zero Carbon Act and the Paris agreement and that she failed to consider key facts such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent warnings about climate change’s severity. Woods has previously declined to comment on the matter in any substance because it is before the courts.

Asked about the rig’s arrival, Ri Theodore, a leader of the Students for Climate Solutions group, said, “It just feels like the government doesn’t care about safeguarding our future … On a deep, emotional level, this is really visceral and gutting.”

Handford promised that activists would continue to mobilise to oppose further oil and gas extraction, but said: “It makes me sad that we have to keep doing this.”

Woods has been approached for comment.

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