Opinion: Jacinda Ardern's big call on offshore oil: Is this her nuclear-free moment?

  • 12/04/2018

Alex Braae for The Spinoff

OPINION: Jacinda Ardern sprung a surprise this morning in announcing an end to offshore oil exploration.

So what's the catch?

What's this all about then?

A few weeks after PM Jacinda Ardern stepped onto the parliament forecourt to accept a petition from Greenpeace, speculation has been swirling that a ban on offshore oil exploration was imminent. And today, it's going to come to pass - which really is a huge win for the environmental movement. Ardern once described climate change as the "nuclear free moment" for her generation. And now, like David Lange banned nuclear ships from our waters, she has drawn a line in the sand.

Wow! That is huge! So no more drilling?

Er, no, actually, actual extraction of oil and gas will continue.

Okay, but still, no new rigs going into the sea, that's pretty great.

Actually, again, no, existing permits are unaffected by this announcement. There are 22 permits for offshore oil and gas exploration that could still go ahead.

Huh. Well at least it's nationwide. New Zealand is taking a stand!

Yeah, ah, actually you can still apply for exploration permits in Taranaki for a few more years. And land-based oil and gas extraction will also be unaffected by this.

Okay, is this actually a big deal? Or is it just - to use the National Party's new favourite word - virtue signalling?

So the aspect of this that does make it a big deal, is that it's a big step towards New Zealand meeting the goal of being carbon neutral energy producers by 2050. This was one of the first things the new government announced as a policy when they took office, and quite frankly is really hard to do if you're still extracting oil and gas.

NZ has a plan to become carbon neutral by 2050.
NZ has a plan to become carbon neutral by 2050. Photo credit: File

As to the symbolic value of such an announcement, it may be a fair point that this is a pretty gentle approach  - and if you want to talk about virtue signalling when it comes to these sorts of things, take a look at France. They recently became the first country in the world to ban all oil and gas extraction. By 2040. Also, France produces about as much oil in a year as Saudi Arabia does in a few hours. But still, the symbolism!

What about the jobs?

This is an area of contention, particularly for Taranaki. The mayor of New Plymouth is horrified, because at present the Taranaki region has the highest GDP per capita in the country, largely because of extraction. Walk around the town and it's incredible how many public buildings and landmarks have the names of oil companies on them.

But, because of the aforementioned softness of aspects of this policy, no currently existing jobs are really affected. If you were a 22 year old rig worker, you might want to think about a career change at some stage down the line, but you'll still be safe turning up for work on Monday.

It strikes me that many of these jobs are in places that don't have an awful lot else going on.

Uh, excuse me, New Plymouth has the Govett-Brewster, that art gallery rules. (Also supported by Todd Energy)

But taking your point, in other parts of the country like Oamaru, oil extraction going ahead could pump millions into the economy. And that could politically prove to be a bit of a problem for Regional Economic Development minister Shane Jones, who will also be part of this announcement today. He put out a press release early this morning making it very clear he wanted there to be a gradual transition away from oil and gas, and that regions affected would get funding for other projects to compensate.

The damage it'll do to Taranaki economically could prove to be contentious for Ms Ardern.
The damage it'll do to Taranaki economically could prove to be contentious for Ms Ardern. Photo credit: File

Still, it's a massive turnaround from his position in 2013, which this Taranaki Daily News article makes very clear. Here's a quote that about sums it up.

"Offshore oil and gas drilling was an essential feature of domestic and export growth, Mr Jones said, and businesses and enterprises enabling it would get full government support."

But hey, politics is the art of the possible, right?

The final word:

Drill baby drill (while you still can).

Alex Braae is a writer for The Spinoff