John Key’s fossilised vision for NZ

One wearies of lamenting the government’s inability to view proposed paths of economic development from the perspective of climate change. But as they continue to trumpet economic solutions which are inimical to facing the challenge of global warming there is little option but to keep reiterating that they need to take a longer term view.

What has provoked this post was the news in the NZ Herald on Thursday of the pleasure the Prime Minister has expressed in the results of a Herald-Digipoll survey suggesting that most New Zealanders back the Government’s plan to increase exploration for oil, gas and minerals. In welcoming the poll result John Key commented:

“New Zealanders, mostly, understand that while we owe it to future generations to do everything we can to protect our environment, we must also do all we can to leave them with a robust and sustainable economy where they can expect a good job and a good standard of living.

“We have always believed that New Zealand’s mineral wealth can play a large part in the economy, and we have also always believed this can be done with a minimal impact on our environment.”

When Key talks about protecting our environment he is obviously not considering the global environment on which human life depends. He’s talking about the local environment. But my concern in this post is not local environmental threats, serious though they often are, but the global threats which are consequent to the mining of fossil fuels.

These threats are never even mentioned in the current government campaign to attract mining exploration in New Zealand and its large area of surrounding seas. The more the threats of climate change multiply and the more evident their first signs become, the more they are ignored in the name of economic progress. Would the New Zealand public really support wider exploration and exploitation of fossil fuels if they knew that the burning of those fuels, no matter by whom, increases the likelihood of catastrophic sea level rise, of dangerous levels of ocean acidification, of much more frequent extreme weather events, of prolonged drought in major food-growing regions, and a host of other impacts highly detrimental to human society?

Key talks of our owing future generations “a robust and sustainable economy where they can expect a good job and a good standard of living”. Does he think that can be delivered along with a world in which societies will be struggling with the massive impacts of unrestrained climate change? I presume his way out of that dilemma is to simply tell himself that the predicted impacts are greatly exaggerated, if he actually thinks about them at all.

The Prime Minister is not a lone figure of course. He is surrounded by people who take the same position, as, according to the polls, do a majority of the population. Labour Party MP Shane Jones, until recently the party associate spokesperson on economic development, is in on the act as well. First a cheap shot against the Greens, again restricted to local environmental considerations:

“We in Maoridom must not buy uncritically into the hostile rhetoric from the Greenies.

“It’s about time they showed as much concern for the brown kiwis disappearing to Aussie as for the habitat of the brown spotted kiwi.”

He sees the extractive industries offering the best prospects for jobs and economic advancement for Northland Maori.

“There is an ethic of guardianship in our national culture and no one should deny that but there’s also an awareness that each generation has got to create jobs and got to search for ways to create wealth.

“We can only create greater wealth by boosting our export earnings. Those things are capable of coming to pass with a sensible environmental framework.”

It is admittedly going to require extensive change for our society to function with greatly reduced reliance on fossil fuels, and the transition can’t happen overnight. But it’s the transition which should be the focus of government attention and support, not the extension of the existing order. It is irresponsible in the extreme to pin New Zealand’s hopes of economic wealth to an increase in fossil fuel exploration and exploitation. It’s a question of direction, and the direction government is currently supporting is wrong and outmoded.

So widespread and so apparently nonchalant is the conviction that we might grow rich through oil and gas and coal that one can feel almost stupid for even suggesting that it is a course which should be eschewed in the interests of humanity. But when one looks seriously at what the science cannot avoid predicting it is not stupid to more than suggest, to insist rather, that we must begin to set a limit to fossil fuel exploitation. Most of what remains must be left where it is. That’s the big picture which the government is studiously avoiding and of which it must continue to be reminded for as long and as often as proves necessary.

35 thoughts on “John Key’s fossilised vision for NZ”

  1. Absolutely spot on in your analysis, Bryan.

    Key and National and Labour for that matter and most business leaders are just parroting “hydro-carbon-extraction-business-as-usual-plus-greenwash”.

  2. It is truly amazing that a supposedly worldly leader like John Key continues to look to the past for ideas on how to bolster the NZ economy. The opposition is only slightly better.

    We should be looking at IP generation, not primary extractive industries. Still, such industries are more understandable to Mr Joe Average and therefore more acceptable to politicians. How would most politicos explain a company that generate IP with a ridiculously high productivity per worker? They would find it hard, I think. So much easier to understand 200,000 barrels of oil day — so easy to visualize.

      1. Indeed, and the “poor people” can move to Australia in their hundreds to graft on in the mines and oil fields. This is not “real work” of course. The smug NZers can have their hi-tech jobs. We of course still need those fossil fuels to get us to conferences and business meetings, and to build all those lovely Chinese made windmills.

        It’s all about “image” of course, the substance is non-existent.

      2. Well, it takes a certain bit of investment to be able to live off the one-time non-renewable resource but those living off it now have forgotten the vast amount of investment that went into initial extraction. To them it now looks like free money.

        OF course, I am envious. For all my suppseod learning I have yet to have an idea that anyone would pay for. SO I guess I am destined to remain a wage salve until I die.

  3. Our economic competitiveness going forward is predicated by our ability to become highly energy efficient (one way or another fossil energy use will become very expensive) and to become talented at harvesting renewable energy streams. This is where we should invest our R&D money unless we want to become beholden to those countries and their technology.

    A high speed efficient electrified rail corridor from AKL to WEL would be a good start….

    1. We don’t have to do it all ourselves. There are plenty people and organisations around the world working on the same thing. We should pinch the best ideas and make them our own.

      Having watched Paul Callaghan’s video on research in New Zealand multiple times I am convinced by the argument that we, as a society, are very bad at picking what tech to invest it. All that investment in biotech has led nowhere yet weird stuff like crystal oscillators and sleep apnoea devices has.

      Primary industries should be seen what they are, a temporary cash generator upon which to build higher productivity that doesn’t consume the environment or resources.

  4. Wouldn’t the same amount of fossil fuels be consumed anyway, no matter where it comes from? Or is there an assumption that NZ, in locking away those fuels, would influence other countries sufficiently to make a difference in global ghg concentrations?

    To those above suggesting “we should do X instead”, I’m pretty sure NZ is advanced enough to do as you suggest as well as considering the short and long term economics of exploration and mining.

    1. It is not the “locking away” but the investment of attention in an industry that isn’t a dead-end. If you knew that cars were coming would you continue to invest in horse carriages – a dead-end industry?
      We know (from science) that fossil fuel is doomed – it is a dead-end industry (in many ways) . We know that co2 will be taxed.
      So why are we investing in horse drawn carriages / in seeking fossil fuels? The lead-in time for any discovery or even for commercialisation of a known fossil resource is at least a decade. Why is NZ investing in finding fossil fuels when we know that by the time we can expect a return on this investment the use of those fossil fuels is going to be abhorrent?
      Isn’t it far better to invest in an industry that is sustainable?

  5. While can can only concur with Bryan Walker’s comments,they’re nothing new.Muddle on’s the continuing watchword.And,it’s our fault–we’ve again got the government we deserve–we learn nothing as the decades drift past.So what are we going to do about it?The usual small,tubby zero?She’ll be right.Convince yourselves:look in the mirror and say it with the hint of a John Key sneer–go on do something meaningfull!
    Peter Cummins

  6. Bryan your writing deserves a much bigger audience, have you submitted this as an opinion piece to the NZ herald? It should also be sent to all MP’s and media organisations.
    Politicians like John Key must believe that anthropogenic global warming isn’t really a genuine threat, the other option, that they know and just don’t care is horrific. Somehow they close their ears to news of the latest extreme weather event (how many died in Russia where they just had 2 months rain in a few hours?)
    Certainly Tim Groser has no sense of urgency. When being interviewed on Morning report on Tues 03/07/2012 he actually said “this is going to be a decades long struggle to get a coherent international response to the challenge of anthropogenic greenhouse gas warming”
    It is totally unacceptable for this country’s climate change minister to suggest to the NZ public that there is plenty of time. I expect he would argue that’s the reality of international negotiations , but that is 100% pure negligence. In my job, I could expect to be sued for ignoring real evidence and not acting on it.

    1. It is very frustrating for our leaders to be be so ignorant of the science, but not exactly surprising. I have maintained for some time now that change will occur when the populace demands it, and that won’t happen until the consequences of global warming become much more severe. The current heatwave afflicting the US is barely scratching the surface.

      1. If only! dw – and yet we hear on our National Radio this morning on “Morning Report” a so called BBC journo in Washington mouthing idiocies about – “natural” cycles blah blah blah… The lack of understanding of these people is unbelievable – and there they are spouting off on something they haven’t the faintest idea about!

  7. The idea that New Zealand’s mineral wealth can generate significant export income is an illusion. The late Paul Callaghan made an excellent point that the capacity for growth in our agricultural industries was extremely limited because there is not enough prime land left to develop. Our minerals and fossil fuels resources have the same problem – we don’t have enough of them. Our geology, as scenic and dynamic as it is, is fundamentally different from that of Australia. Whereas Australia’s stable crust has accumulated mineral deposits over 3 billion years, our dynamic crust has had only a tenth as long to develop. This combined with the long lead time needed to bring what little mineral wealth we have into production, and the potential economic impact would be quite small – perhaps 10% of the our per capita income gap with Australia.

    The government is either ignorant of these facts – readily available from its own CRI scientists – or knows them and is creating a diversion to weaken the Greens. Either way, eventually we’ll have to follow Rutherford’s advice, “We don’t have the money, so we’ve got to think!”

    1. Just this year Mike I was discussing this very question with a retired geologist from a mining company in WA who specialized in the economic feasibility of projects – ie he earned his wages by suggesting where his company (a very large one) should “dig”. I gather he was very successful at it. He was incredulous that NZ was wasting money on prospecting – especially off the East coast. As you well know and have demonstrated here.

      1. We have successful gold and coal mining industries in NZ. We also have offshore gas fields.

        Do we not have any more worth prospecting for, or are you just anti?

        1. Successful, yes, but far from significant and certainly nowhere near enough to fill the income gap with Australia. Bigger is better when it comes to the exploitation of mineral and fossil fuel resources because much of the exploration and development costs are fixed. Most of the current exploration activity in New Zealand is pure hype. For example, compare the estimated size of the Southland lignite resource with that of Victoria. Absolute peanuts.

        2. They are “successful” only because they cut corners at every point, pay no royalites in some cases (eg Waihi), and try to externalise every cost they can onto the general public. The so called “economic benefits”, are frankly little more than peanuts, and the damage that they do to the environment is immense. I’m now living in Thames, a town of historic gold mining experience, and the more I learn of the experience the more I become aware that going down an extractive road to economic gain is foolhardy in the extreme.

  8. Note Baker’s emphasis on “exploration”. “Exploration” is research as opposed to “development”. I have no problem with mineral and fossil fuel exploration in NZ. In fact, I’m all for it as an academic geologist because 1) it will further my research and 2) has little chance of finding anything of real value.

  9. I looked into this a tiny bit. Greymouth Petroleum was the only NZ identity to be awarded leases in the Great South Basin by the government back in 2007. They “won” the least desirable land position compared to OMV and Exxon (see They had until this month to drill (anything) to secure their holdings further. The drill site is a sand and gravel quarry on private land on Halfmoon Bay. The thin sediment deposits there are underlain by hard crystalline igneous rock (not prospective for oil unless one buys into the Russian theory of “deep” oil). This is obviously a necessary move to retain their land position until the major leaseholder, OMV, declare their hand. Note that Greymouth is a private company with potential cash-flow issues (see

      1. I have to say that, in more than a decade of tackling such issues here in Oz – and, for the benefit of the microphone, making no claims whatsoever about any specific company in New Zealand, or anywhere else for that matter – that what a great many of particularly the smaller players and start-ups are actually mining is the stock-market.

      2. Speaking of Mickey, at one time in the USA, a mining claim made on public land could be retained through the expenditure of a minimum amount on “exploration” each year. After a certain number of years of such expenditures, the land would be transfered to private ownership in the name of the “prospector”. The problem was that any expenditure could be credited to “exploration”. There was more than one holiday home in the Colorado Rockies built on land obtained through this loophole.

    1. There was a short piece on the exploration well on TVNZ Close Up tonight.

      The guy from Greymouth Petroleum stressed that they had no intention of drilling there and that it gave more info to the potential offshore prospects.

      This is probably what we would call a spec survey and Greymouth are hoping to sell the data to someone else.

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