Greenpeace’s OMV oil leak concerns

Greenpeace has been going to extreme lengths to stop OMV's oil drilling, citing concerns for the climate and the environment. Farah Hancock reports.

A weekend occupation of an OMV support vessel which has resulted in arrests is the latest in a string of activities undertaken by Greenpeace against OMV's marine oil and gas drilling.

In 2018, the Government announced there would be no new permits issued for offshore oil and gas exploration. Existing permits weren’t affected.

One of those permits is held by OMV for an area known as the Great South Basin, to the east of Otago.

In protest, Greenpeace campaigners have climbed a skyscraper to hang banners from OMV's Wellington headquarters, they’ve delivered an eviction notice to the company, a high school student gave a surprise speech at a meeting of Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) stakeholders and the organisation attempted to submit information to the behind-closed-door drilling consent process currently underway. 

Norman has a long list of reasons why he thinks the plans to drill for oil are crazy.

"We can't afford to burn existing fossil fuel reserves, let alone look for new fossil fuel reserves."

Greenpeace's press release points out OMV is one of 100 companies responsible for 70 percent of the world’s climate emissions.

“It is so crazy on so many levels, like the craziness of doing this in a climate emergency. The craziness of this deep-sea drilling with no relief oil rig available, and the craziness of being able to put in this application without anyone else being allowed to submit any external advice to challenge anything that OMV has alleged or has claimed in their application. The craziness of trying to keep the decision-making committee in grand isolation from anyone else's information that they could provide.”

Aside from climate change, Norman worries about a worst-case scenario. What would happen if there’s a Deepwater Horizon-type incident? The east coast of the South Island is full of bird and sea life. “Oil spewing off the east coast of the South Island”, as he puts it, would be a disaster for local fauna.

"It's a super-abundant piece of ocean in terms of wildlife, seabirds, cetaceans. With oil spills like this, there is no capacity to contain this thing in a short amount of time."

Before OMV can commence drilling, it needs to get consent from the EPA.

As a non-notified activity, public submissions aren’t sought and much of the process takes place behind closed doors. This closed-door approach is a peculiarity of the Exclusive Economic Zone Act which is under discussion.

If you’re producing petroleum, getting a marine consent involves public submissions. If you’re exploring for oil the consents are non-notified and public submissions can’t be considered.

A discussion document regarding the Crown Minerals Act released last week asks a series of questions, including whether the process should be changed to allow public involvement in the decision-making process.

Norman thinks the current approach is nonsensical.

“They’re saying they’re somehow trying to hermetically seal the decision-making committee from the rest of society so they can’t access the information we’re trying to provide them.”

Via the Official Information Act, Greenpeace obtained the consent application and a number of documents. 

An independent expert looked at these for Greenpeace and raised concerns at OMV’s modelling of what would happen if there was an oil spill in the Great South Basin, an area east of Otago.

He said the model lacked the amount of detail which normally would be provided. 

The expert was also concerned at the application’s stance that the Stokes drift effect - the horizontal movement of currents produced by waves - is insignificant. In his view, the Stokes drift effect in an environment like the Great South Basin is “far from insignificant” and should be included.

When Greenpeace sent these concerns to the Environmental Protection Authority, it was told as it’s a non-notifiable consent the “unsolicited information” which won’t be shared with the three person decision-making committee.

An EPA spokesperson told Newsroom the committee making the decision on the consent did have the ability to seek further information if required in order to make its decision.

The rig which OMV plan to use in the Great South Basin. Photo: Supplied

What happens if there’s an oil spill in the Great South Basin?

OMV does have a plan for what to do if there’s an oil leak which has already been approved by Maritime NZ, however, the EPA also has to assess the risk an oil spill would pose to the environment.

The rig itself has minimal equipment to deal with minor onboard oil spills. This includes nine kits with absorbent material and personal protection gear. If oil enters the water, a support boat’s boom and skimmer system will be used to recover oil. 

For a large spill it’s a case of seeking international help. OMV has a contract with Oil Response Limited, a large global company which specialises in oil clean-ups.

If there’s a disaster, oil could be leaking for 21 days.

OMV told Newsroom if the blow-out preventer fails during drilling, the plan to plug a leak is to use what’s called a capping stack. This would be transported to the site, possibly from Singapore and installed by the support vessel.

OMV estimates this will take 21 days to transport to New Zealand and assemble. Modelling completed by MetOcean for OMV shows in the 21 days oil is unlikely to reach New Zealand’s coast.

This is the modelling Greenpeace’s expert opinion has concerns over. Greenpeace also notes if the capping stack fails, a second rig would be needed to drill a relief well. As no other rigs in New Zealand are able to drill at the depth the company plans to drill at in the Great South Basin, a relief rig would need to arrive by sea, most likely from Singapore. This would take much longer than 21 days to arrive.

OMV's spokesperson said the company plans to be vigilant through the drilling campaign and "our prevention measures and oil spill contingency plan meets the highest international standards and all New Zealand statutory requirements".

OMV's self-published fact sheet points out OMV currently pays around $200 million in tax and royalties a year, making it one of the country's largest tax payers. If the exploration work finds oil it suggests this could help reduce New Zealand's current imports of 50 million barrels of oil per year.

Greenpeace plans more protest action next week.

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