29 Oct 2015

Auckland Council backs away from oil exploration stance

7:22 pm on 29 October 2015

Anti-oil campaigners say they've been let down by the Auckland Mayor for not taking a stance against the government's plan for deep sea oil exploration off the west coast.

Instead, it voted to send the government recommendations on areas of environmental concern.

Protesters against deep sea oil exploration outside an Auckland council meeting.

Protestors against deep sea oil exploration outside an Auckland council meeting. Photo: RNZ/Mohamed Hassan

The council has backed away from a call to reject the plan, and says it will instead make recommendations around areas of environmental concern.

Mayor Len Brown said he had been handcuffed by the government, but did not want to cut off ties by taking symbolic stances.

Dozens gathered outside the Town Hall this morning, brandishing images of the Mexico Gulf oil spill - burning rigs, plumes of thick smoke, polluted beach fronts - held up alongside cut-out images of the Auckland mayor.

'It's not worth it', the placards read, and the message was addressed to Mr Brown and his council, who were both jeered and welcomed as they walked in.

Climate change activist Fala Haulangi said deep sea oil drilling would only make things worse for small islands like her native Tuvalu.

"The cyclones...the king tides, the patterns of things are really changing dramatically back home.

"That's the fear that I have, that the risk of deep sea oil drilling is going to have an impact on the livelihood of my people back home."

The Auckland Council were meeting to vote on a proposal to grant deep sea drilling permits to companies looking to establish the size of gas and oil deposits off the west coast.

The area does not extend into Auckland's coastal marine area, but there was concern seismic surveying could have destructive effects on marine life.

Waitakere Ranges local board member Safron Toms said two-thirds of the world's dolphin, whale and porpoise species lived in Auckland's waters.

"They travel, between our borders and way out into other areas...and into petroleum drilling areas."

Over the last three years, the Auckland Council has submitted two sets of recommendations on the proposal, raising issues where drilling areas overlapped into Auckland waters and suggesting local bodies the government should consult with.

Some recommendations were taken on board and rectified, but others were mentioned in the third submission as having not been dealt with.

Greenpeace told the council the risk of environmental disaster, like that of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill, far outweighed any benefits of deep sea oil.

It said there was a misconception that oil exploration did not involve drilling, and that was not true.

The council was divided today, with nearly half wanting to take a stand against drilling and reject the drilling plan all together.

Cathy Casey said it was the role of the council to back the voice of the public.

"We need to make a statement to the government that we don't want offshore drilling."

She said there was an entire section in the Auckland Plan dedicated to the environment, and that needed to be upheld.

"We did this because we really do value that area."

Waitakere councillor Linda Cooper disagreed. She said simply saying 'no' was a very blunt instrument.

"At the end of the day, I want the ability to comprehensively say what we mean."

Deputy mayor Penny Hulse said the council was in a tough position, because it could not ban oil drilling, or control which way the government will go.

She said by making recommendations to the proposal, it could ensure community concerns were heard.

Eventually, an amendment calling on the council to take a stand against the government and reject offshore drilling was voted down 11-to-9.

When the meeting was over, the once-fiery crowd of protesters shuffled out of the chambers looking deflated.

Waiheke resident Marta Fish said the council's stance was "gutless".

"I think they're trying to protect their own backs, I don't think they have leadership.

"I hope they don't get voted in next time."

Mr Brown, who voted against the amendment, said his hands are tied.

He says the government had already made up its mind about the plan, and it was better to keep dialogue open rather than taking symbolic stances.

"I'm not into symbolic stances on anything.

"Putting a clear position forward with regard to what we think should be mitigated in the decision that they make is much more pragmatic, is much more effective way to govern on behalf of our people."

Mr Brown said public consultation should be done by parliament, not by local governments who had no real say in the matter.

Greenpeace climate campaigner Steve Abel said he now felt let down by the mayor.

"If he'd voted for the amendment...then Auckland Council today would be saying no to oil drilling."

The Christchurch City Council and the Kaikoura Council have both voted against offshore drilling, and Mr Abel said he'll keep lobbying to get more regions on board.