But if one bloke can’t do the inspection job, why haven’t we had a catastrophic oil spill?

It’s easy to see why the public service blossoms under Labour governments.

The buggers are strong on regulation and inspection, and stuff like that.

Now they are howling for the Government to hire more inspectors to keep an eye on the splendid people who are doing our economy a big favour by looking for oil.

We already have a bloke who undertakes this work.

Obviously he is very good at it, because we have had no catastrophes like the one in the Gulf of Mexico last year.

But Labour’s Charles Chauvel has banged out a Press Release headed Safety Last – Just One Official Responsible For All NZ Oil Wells

The Labour Party is expressing concern that the Government employs just one person to be responsible for the safety of all oil wells in New Zealand, whether on or off-shore.

“This fact, confirmed in an Environment Defence Society (EDS) research paper released last week, beggars belief, given the National-led Government’s move to massively expand petroleum exploration,” said Labour’s Environment Spokesperson Charles Chauvel.

Chauvel recognises that National wants much more drilling for oil in New Zealand, including a big expansion in offshore exploration, as evidenced by the licence granted to Petrobras in the Raukumara Basin.

“There are no environmental safeguards or conditions attached to this license. Even if there had been, they would have been practically unenforceable, with only one public servant in the entire Ministry of Economic Development responsible for all the safety issues across all petroleum exploration in our Exclusive Economic Zone, which totals 1.3m square nautical miles.

“New Zealand needs to do much better in managing the risks it faces, especially in light of greatly expanded exploration activity. Our economy couldn’t stand a disaster such as the Gulf of Mexico or the Timor Sea spills last year.”

And sure enough, we get the promise that under Labour, “there would be proper regulation of activity in New Zealand’s EEZ, and there would be proper consultation with affected groups and communities”.

The fact we have one inspector is not news, of course.

Just before Christmas, the NZ Herald regaled us with the news that New Zealand has just one inspector to oversee safety in its oil exploration industry.

The single Department of Labour oil well inspector must monitor health and safety on at least seven installations to guard against accidents such as the blowout that killed 11 workers on a rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

A Government-ordered review released last week found the inspectorate is significantly under-resourced.

Of other countries studied, Australia has one inspector for every three installations, Britain one for every two and Norway one per installation.

The New Zealand inspector is also responsible for onshore petroleum and geothermal activities.

Fair to say, the Petroleum Exploration and Production Association isn’t unhappy with this.

Its executive officer, John Pfahlert, at that time said immediate attention was needed so the Department of Labour could make more effective inspections.

About 15 years ago there were up to 10 inspectors.

Has any mischief been done by reducing their numbers?

None that Alf can discern.

But the afore-mentioned review said one isn’t enough – we need three at a minimum plus a couple of support staff.

The Government can hardly be accused of ignoring the issue.

Energy and Resources Minister Gerry Brownlee released the report, which called for submissions in response to the recommendations.

He said –

“I think if we’re going to have more of this activity we have to make sure we have high levels of compliance – how we achieve that is yet to be determined.”

He said the Government would like compliance to be “as efficient as possible”.

Can’t say fairer than that.

But Alf noted that one Gary Taylor, from the Environmental Defence Society, was kicking up a fuss in the Herald last week.

He said community concern about the dangers of petroleum exploration in New Zealand’s exclusive economic zone was justified.

Exploration work was not subject to adequate environmental regulation.

He referred to a research paper published a week earlier by the Environmental Defence Society which compared New Zealand’s environmental and safety regulations with other countries.

It reiterated what we already knew.

We have just one person responsible for inspecting all offshore and onshore petroleum wells – the worst ratio of all the countries surveyed in another recent study commissioned by the Ministry of Economic Development. Our system is just not safe.

Alf sees things differently.

If our one bloke is doing what it takes several people to do in other countries, obviously we must be doing it more efficiently.

But here’s the thing.

Taylor admitted the Government is on the case.

The Government has acknowledged that there’s an urgent need for legislative reform, which has been promised for later this year. The petroleum industry itself has agreed with the EDS that we need a proper regulatory framework for resource extraction in our oceans. In our view, this needs to be robust and not simply green-wash. If the environmental and safety risks are too great for a particular project then consents should be refused.

But enough is never enough for some tossers.

Taylor goes on to wail that the problem with our oceans is much bigger than lack of regulation in the economic zone.

The broad suite of laws covering our oceans is outdated, ineffective and well behind international best practice. New Zealand, which used to be leader in oceans governance, is now behind the times.

We do not have the tools to protect our oceans. Other countries have developed marine spatial planning as a key tool to manage conflicting uses in their oceans; we need to go there, too. The Environmental Protection Authority should have an expanded role in our economic zone.

Our conservation laws are also hopelessly outdated. We are seeing the New Zealand sealion population spiralling towards extinction, with management agencies seemingly powerless to intervene. The tools are just not there.

If the tools are just not there – Alf retorts – then just duck down to Mitre 10 and buy what’s needed.

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