Drill, Bro, Drill? Considering the Drive for Mineral Extraction in New Zealand

The issue of mineral (oil, gas, coal and gold) extraction has become a high-profile issue in New Zealand since the election of a centre-right National-led government in 2008. The drive of the government to mine in the protected national park estate led to one of the country’s largest protest marches in 2010 when 50,000 marched through the centre of Auckland (New Zealand’s largest city). The following year, attempts by Petrobras to explore for oil offshore led to protests on land and at sea in the form of a protest flotilla aimed to disrupt prospecting. Although the government backed down on plans to allow mining on conservation land and Petrobras ended its survey after a couple of months, this was a temporary victory for those opposed to extraction. The re-election of National-led governments in 2011 and 2014 with strengthened mandates, partially due to a collapse of the centre-left Labour Party, meant that mineral exploration has remained firmly on the agenda. To support its policy agenda, the National government has reduced the size of the public sector and restructured key parts of the institutional architecture. Particularly telling in this regard was the April 2012 creation of the Ministry for Primary Industries from what were the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Ministry of Fisheries and the New Zealand Food Safety Authority. When considered alongside the relatively weak Department of Conservation and Ministry for the Environment, the prioritisation of economic development through primary production and extraction (catching up with Australia) is clear.

 

Sign on State Highway 35, January 2013 - John Key was Prime Minister and Petrobras was surveying for oil and gas offshore [Source: Author]

Sign on State Highway 35, January 2013 – John Key was Prime Minister and Petrobras was surveying for oil and gas offshore [Source: Author]

Greenpeace sign on State Highway 35, January 2013 [Source: Author]

Greenpeace sign on State Highway 35, January 2013 [Source: Author]

In the face of this drive there has been mobilisation of environmental opposition from a range of different actors. Large national organisations, such as Greenpeace and ‘Forest and Bird’ (officially the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society) have played important roles in generating campaigns, supported by smaller, more locally focused groups. The figure below shows the number of protest events targeting mineral exploration and extraction over the 1997-2014 period (see O’Brien, 2015 for fuller discussion). It is clear that the policy direction of the National-led government from late 2008 provided a spur for opposition. The extensive nature of the drive for extraction has led to coalitions bringing together environmental movement actors, concerned locals and even farmers (a traditional National Party support base) demonstrating the breadth of concern and those potentially affected. This upsurge in opposition activity has not however dampened the desire of the National government to pursue mineral extraction. Instead it has pushed ahead, opening substantial new areas for oil and gas exploration in a range of different locations around the country to large international firms such as Anadarko, StatOil and TAG Oil. It has also begun to explore the possibility of fracking, something which has generated strong opposition. The ability of the environmental movement to challenge these moves has been restricted, with the government amending the law in 2014 to restrict the ability of protest flotillas to operate within 500 metres of offshore prospecting operations.

 

[Source: Author – see O’Brien, 2015 for details on coding]

 

The current situation in New Zealand reflects the challenges facing environmental movements more broadly. They are able to mobilise reasonable levels of support and generate attention around the risk of environmental damage, but in the face of a determined government their impact remains limited. In the absence of strong political allies and where the government can rely on apparently non-political, technical justifications for its decisions opposition will remain marginal. One possible area where opposition can have an impact is in the area of public support, with the sustained campaign beginning to reduce the level of support for mining among the wider public. The importance to the New Zealanders of seeing their country as clean, green and ‘100% Pure’ may yet enhance the impact of the environmental movement, especially as exploration turns to extraction and the associated risks and impacts become apparent.

 

Thomas O’Brien, Cranfield University

*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and are not designed to reflect the position of the PSA Specialist Group on Environmental Politics.  The Group encourages thoughtful and respectful reflection on the content in the comments section of the post.*