Bureaucrats fumble oil spill plan release

By Pattrick Smellie

Nov 24 (BusinessDesk) - Officials at Maritime New Zealand have spent the weekend scrambling to create a public version of Texan oil explorer Anadarko's detailed plans to control a major oil spill at its drilling rig 150 kilometres off the North Island west coast.

The risk of such a spill is judged "extremely unlikely" in a 250 page environmental impact assessment report from Anadarko, published on the Environmental Protection Authority's website.

But detailed annexes to the report covering oil spill modelling, an emergency response plan and a well control contingency plan are absent apart from their cover pages, with the EPA saying those documents are the responsibility of Maritime New Zealand.

But the MNZ website carries no information on the plans and the agency has instructed media, environmentalists and members of the public wanting to see the plans to request them under the Official Information Act.

As a result, Anadarko executives and MNZ officials are now poring over the documents to delete commercially sensitive or private elements of the Discharge Management Plan (DMP), which was approved on Friday, Nov 15, just four days before Anadarko's drill ship, the Noble Bob Douglas, arrived in New Zealand waters.

Disclosure of the variable levels of disclosure between different government agencies charged with regulating the health, safety and environmental elements of Anadarko's plans came to light amid growing public protest against deep-sea drilling.

A small Greenpeace-led flotilla of protest yachts is seeking to disrupt exploration drilling of the Romney prospect in the Deepwater Taranaki licence area, and thousands of New Zealanders gathered on west coast beaches on Saturday to protest against deep-sea oil drilling.

The company is due to begin drilling operations tomorow and it remains unclear whether there will be action to remove protest yachts that are staying within the 500 metre exclusion zone created around oil infrastructure in controversial circumstances earlier this year.

Anadarko's New Zealand spokesman Alan Seay said the company was "very happy" with the way government agencies had handled the application, although MNZ spokesman Steve Rendle suggested the issue had not been well handled.

"I don't think I'm talking out of turn to say we will be looking at ways to make sure this comes out quicker in the future," he told BusinessDesk. "We acknowledge there's obviously great public interest and we will be looking to get that (the DMP) out as soon as we practically can."

The Environmental Defence Society first drew attention to the lack of full disclosure last week, arguing the new law covering economic activity in the country's Exclusive Economic Zone includes explicit requirements on the EPA to assess the environmental impacts of a major oil spill.

The documents published on the EPA website were "not the final documents," said Rendle.

EDS head Gary Taylor said New Zealand was in the process of "making the same mistakes" as had led to the deadly oil well explosion and environmental disaster on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

"We can't be sure that the EPA has the competence to cut the mustard," he said.

In the documents from Anadarko on the EPA website, the company includes a map showing the most at-risk areas, in the unlikely event of a major spill, run from the southern heads of the Manukau Harbour south to Kawhia Harbour.

Anadarko proposes to spend between 65 and 75 days drilling the Romney prospect well before heading to Caravel, a prospect in the Canterbury basin off the east coast of the South Island early next year.

The documents say the Taranaki well is not expected to encounter any zones of abnormal pressure" but that the Noble Bob Douglas is carrying a Blow-Out Preventer device for use if control of a well were lost.

The company also has a contract with Oil Response International, an insurance cooperative created by the global oil industry to supply emergency oil well control equipment by both sea and air, with the closest bases in South Africa and Singapore.

The details of that contract were important, said Taylor, because of the large difference in delay between a commitment to airlifting equipment and shipping it to New Zealand if a worst case scenario occurred.

(BusinessDesk)

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