Hidden treasure is fools gold

The Institute of Professional Engineers New Zealand (IPENZ) has launched a new document, Realising Our Hidden Treasure: Responsible Mineral and Petroleum Extraction. The title says it all, and it’s the same message as the government has been feeding us for the last three years.

First the treasure. The document sets it out in dollar terms. I’ll mention only the fossil fuels here. They estimate the potential value of the resources as $109 billion for coal, $248 billion for lignite, $187 billion for oil and $45 billion for natural gas.

Then the question of responsible extraction. The document is concerned with the environmental effects. There are plenty to be concerned about, but in this post I’ll focus on greenhouse gases, which the document addresses in a short section headed “Can We Manage Greenhouse Gas Emissions?”

The opening statement of the section attempts to declare us free from any responsibility for the consequences from exported products:

A global decision has been made that the responsibility for minimising greenhouse discharges lies with fossil fuel users, not producers.

And so far as burning them in New Zealand is concerned, that’s all covered by the ETS which has seemingly accounted for the effects of emissions:

The New Zealand regulatory environment already provides direct economic signals to private investors so fossil fuel users and producers are able to operate in a market that embodies the effect of greenhouse gas emissions.

The conclusion follows logically:

IPENZ considers New Zealand should not penalise itself or forego economic opportunity by leaving its minerals and petroleum in the ground. It is not immoral or inappropriate to derive economic benefit from these resources.

This is casuistry, all too familiar in the defence of continuing fossil fuel extraction. What they are really saying is that it is still profitable to mine fossil fuels because governments refuse to put a price on them which reflects their real costs. That means there is continuing demand for them and we would be fools not to benefit from it.

Interesting that they should feel the need to say it is not immoral. I hope that means they suspect it might be. Somewhere along the line it must become immoral, by any normal definition of morality. We know that the continued burning of fossil fuels will create havoc with the environment in which human civilisation has developed and flourished. We can be pretty sure that it is already impacting harshly on the lives of many of the world’s poorer populations. We can foresee the grave threats it carries for the viability of many human societies even in the course of this century. It may not be immoral to continue with fossil fuels for a brief time while we make an urgent transition to other energy sources. But to delay that transition while we extract and use up all the fossil resources that are still available would be deeply immoral and should be denounced as such. To hail the possibility of extracting all New Zealand’s fossil resources as an economic opportunity not to be missed is to move dangerously away from basic ethical norms. IPENZ needs to check its moral compass, if it hasn’t lost it.

The next paragraph in the document begins to considers the possibility that the ETS may not be as effective in dealing with the matter of emissions as they first declared:

However, it is acknowledged that in a review in 2010, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment highlighted New Zealand’s international emission reduction obligations and the unlikelihood of the country meeting its targets. The review also noted the Emissions Trading Scheme is the only significant mechanism currently available for curbing growth in the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

But they’re not going to let that weigh too heavily on their conscience:

This is a wider issue for New Zealand to consider, rather than one industry.

A final paragraph looks at the lignite question.

Solid Energy New Zealand Limited has recently begun constructing a pilot lignite briquetting plant near Mataura in Southland. Solid Energy is also investigating converting lignite to ammonia and urea fertiliser, or to liquid transport fuels. Each of these products has different carbon emission intensity and this will need managing. Solid Energy is aware of this issue and has stated it intends to explore ways of reducing emissions, offsetting emissions by plantings or purchasing carbon credits, or carbon capture and storage.

These are weasel words. Unless carbon capture and storage becomes a viable proposition – a possibility of which there’s so far little indication other than rhetorical – the plain fact is that the lignite development is going to add substantial quantities of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere because the cost of offsetting will be cheap and will not come anywhere near compensating for the emissions. Offsetting is not a miracle solution to rising emissions.

The convoluted arguments of IPENZ carry no weight against the stubborn reality that most of the world’s as yet unexploited fossil fuels will have to remain in the ground if we are to have any hope of avoiding the more extreme dangers of climate change. I would have hoped that engineers would have enough scientific savvy to recognise this. The lure of hidden treasure must sometimes be resisted.

15 thoughts on “Hidden treasure is fools gold”

  1. Hidden treasure, ie mineable resources are a national asset. Not to mine them may well be irresponsible.

    A suggestion.

    The patron saint of lost causes for catholic believers is St Jude…

    1. Bennydale, I’m no catholic but I’ve been championing lost causes most of my life without the help of St Jude. Not the side you ever line up with obviously. But watch out – lost causes can be tenacious and sometimes turn defeat into ultimate victory. Think the abolition of slavery.

    2. Clean air and water, good topsoil and a stable temperate climate are also national assets.
      Coal and minerals will not disappear if we do not use them. They will be there for future generations, who will hopefully have the means of utilizing them without damage to the environment.

      1. Yes, Carol, that is exactly right! There is only one group rushing to develop fossil fuels before the inevitable transition to solar – those with massive debt from previous exploration, development and environmental damages to pay down.

  2. Of course it’s both immoral and inappropriate. Deluges like we’ve just seen in Nelson are going to eventually become the norm as the atmosphere warms, and is consequently able to uplift and then dump more water over the land.

    The oceans are already becoming corrosive in some parts of the world as a result of fossil fuel-burning. Look at the oyster industry in the US states of Oregon and Washington – ocean acidification is killing juvenile oysters today. And recent studies show high levels of atmospheric CO2 are fatal to fish

    Given that we are a tiny nation surrounded by ocean, with a large income derived from the ocean, digging up that lignite would be a moral evil. We won’t be able to put the climate Humpty Dumpty back together again.The oceans will be knackered for hundreds of thousands to millions of years.

    To be sure, these current-day politicians and peddlars of vested interest lies, will soon be remembered as perhaps the most morally reprehensible people in all of human existence.

  3. In the real world pushers of drugs are as culpable,, if not more culpable, than the users.
    The world is in a state of addiction with fossil fuel – our extravagant lifestyle in the west demands it. We go into withdrawal symptoms if we cannot get another fix. Therefore the first tenet of the IPENZ is ethically without merit. The pushers of Carbon are just as morally deficient as the user, and each must bear the blame. That a conference of addicts has decided that pushers are ok, is neither here nor there!

  4. It is truly appalling that the professional body for engineers has stooped to the lowest level of PR spin and pollution advocacy espoused by the Greenhouse Policy Coalition and Straterra.
    Where are the “Engineers for Sustainability” or similar?

    1. “Engineers for Sustainability” Now that’s a good idea! How about “Professionals for Sustainability” as a body of professionals bound by upholding principals of working towards a sustainable future!

      Straterra however on climate change:


      and on oceans:

      For the greedy our Oceans are the last frontier to sell our children’s future down the chimneys of today’s consumption:
      Oil & gas, methane hydrates, precious and base metals, rock phosphate, and ironsands are among New Zealand’s offshore resources potential.“[Straterra]

  5. A weird piece of writing. The background motif of leaves etc looks like it comes from the Save Manapouri campaign. Subtle, ironic.

    What upsets me most is that it purports to be a professional paper, including references, but includes no references on fossil fuel production and climate change. Hundreds of peer reviewed papers have been written.

    Part of the IPENZ Competence Standard for Professional Engineers is to “Read literature, comprehend, evaluate and apply new knowledge”.

    Reading it now, the paper is embarrassing for its lack of professionalism. In 10 years time, it will look like complicity in a crime.

  6. By all means, let’s mine lignite and coal.
    But let’s also make it very clear that there is no government bail-out or backing for the considerable 20+ year investment required for such ventures.
    Are any proponents willing to gamble on the compliance regime that is likely to be in place in five or ten years?
    Perhaps we need John Key to sell of Solid Energy tout suite.

  7. It is all a plot by the civil engineers to get more work redesigning coastal protection structures and stop banks and roads etc to cope with greater climate change effects.

    1. Right, imagine they will run out of “Red Stickers” by the mid of the century when sea levels begin to take away that beach front vista or the behind the coastline low land farm….

  8. I think the report “Realising Our Hidden Treasure: Responsible Mineral and Petroleum Extraction” deserves a “red sticker” for promoting the “do nothing” response to climate change that will result in the planet being uninhabitable, let alone a structure.

    I just hope the members of IPENZ working on the rebuild of Christchurch are applying the appropriate tenets of their peer-reviewed knowledge. Its obvious that IPENZ is not doing this in publishing “Realising Our Hidden Treasure: Responsible Mineral and Petroleum Extraction”.

  9. I find it difficult to accept that this paper represents the viewpoint of IPENZ membership.
    I note the following (below) at the end of the position paper. I am curious as to the process of determining such position reports.

    “The Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand Incorporated (IPENZ) is the non-aligned professional body for engineering and technology professionals in New Zealand. It seeks to contribute to the community of national interest. One part of its contribution is to issue position papers, which gave a learned view on important issues, independently of any commercial interest. Such papers are not consensus papers of the Institution membership. Others are free to quote or use materials from this paper.”

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