Prime Minister asking for it but oblivious to criticism

by | 14 Oct 2011 | Transport and climate action | 2 comments

Rena arial 14.10.2011

Week and a Day: Day nine and oil streams needlessly from the needlessly grounded Rena. photographer Andrew Gorrie

New Zealanders have been told to put up or shut up:

Show me how you’d go faster? Show me how you’d do anything different?

Told by their Prime Minister, John Key, no less—in response to widespread incredulity that a ship with 1700 tonnes of bunker fuel aboard could sit grounded for four days in calm weather before any attempt was made to remove the stuff.

Given the specific damage sustained when the Rena ran onto the Astrolabe Reef at full speed, the release of an appreciable amount of oil was unavoidable—setting aside the question of how smart or reckless it is to fail to have a radar reflector mounted on a reef that ships routinely skirt by the barest margin in order to waste the least amount of fuel and time on the Tauranga – East Cape legs of their voyages. The precautionary response following the grounding, after attending to the immediate safety of the ship and its crew, clearly called for the removal of the bulk of the heavy fuel oil. Instead, the public has endured lectures that the most important thing was safety, and the importance of doing nothing until the best international experts could be hired and consulted—as though to suggest that the call for urgent action was tantamount to a call for reckless and ill-considered action.

Oil pollution barge under tow

Day One: ‘In Auckland, Ronald Winstone offers the use of inflatable oil recovery barges. His company builds and sells these specialist barges around the world. He doesn’t hear back.’ image Lancer Industries

On learning of the grounding on day one, the reaction of Mahurangi West resident Michael Gordon, a retired chief engineer with twenty-five years of marine experience, was:

Thank goodness for the calm weather forecast, and thank goodness there’s a bunkering vessel handy.

The National Party that John Key leads is extremely fortunate that this largely avoidable environmental catastrophe is playing out only weeks away from a general election. The electorate is much like a container ship; it responds painfully slowly to the helm. By the time the full appreciation of the cost of the delay registers with voters—the cost to the Bay of Plenty’s marine and estuarine environments, and the lives and businesses that depend upon them—the election will have returned National to power, having lost but a few percentage points to the Green Party.

Between now and the election, many will accept the Prime Minister’s assurance that:

Rena dead bird 14.10.2011

Unforgivable: The pitiful sight of dead and dying sea birds is too painful for most people to endure. Thick-hided politicians, with their bland assurances that all reasonable haste was made, may find their electorates somewhat unforgiving. photographer Rossiland McIntosh

You’d mobilise the best people in the world, work out exactly what the structural damage was, how to get the oil off the ship, which barge to put it in … that’s exactly what’s happened in the first four days.

But that type of lineal, bureaucratic approach in the face of an environmental emergency of the potential magnitude of the Rena’s grounding is patently inadequate. Any responsible maritime professional would have advised dispatching all available bunkering vessels immediately. In addition to Seafuels’ 3900-tonne tanker Awanuia, which at any time would not be farther away than Marsden Point, on 3 October the fleet tanker Endeavour was in Wellington as part of the navy’s 70th celebrations, only arriving on the scene on the evening of day five. And there was the day one offer of Lancer Industries oil recovery barges, which received no response.

It is hugely ironic that the funding freeze affecting Maritime New Zealand, which probably contributed to its lethargic response to the grounding of the Rena, will now pale into insignificance in comparison to the financial cost inflicted on Aotearoa. It is also an unwelcome echo of the Pike River Mine disaster where corporatist thinking by successive governments had gutted a once-diligent mine safety service.

Gulf of Mexico oil spill cartoon

Not the Worst: While it is Aotearoa’s worst specific incident and is having an immediate and profound impact, the global environmental disaster that is anthropogenic global warming dwarfs this and even the 492‍ ‍000 to 627‍ ‍000-tonne Deepwater Horizon oil spill. cartoon Majorlook Productions

Environmental issues, much like Māori, have been marginalised under the two-party Labour–National duopoly that only started to crumble post the introduction of mixed member proportional. While the environmental issue, anthropogenic global warming, leaves most of the electorate unmoved, the oiling of the Mount Manganui and Papamoa is an affront to every New Zealander. Prime Minister Key misjudged this distinction when he failed to cancel all appointments and fly to the Bay of Plenty, if not on day one, then certainly by day two. If he’d done nothing else, he would have signalled to all responsible that, with the whole world already watching, Aotearoa’s ‘100% pure’ branding was in imminent danger of being even more badly besmirched. Instead, his slowness to respond—and that his patronising Transport Minister is clearly out of his depth, even as ‘the minister for motorways’—has revealed a party that is callous to the natural environment.

The immediate electoral impact will not mean that National will struggle to lead the next government, but the Green Party will likely find its arm has been sufficiently strengthened to be making major policy contributions by the 2014 election.

Gulf of Mexico oil spill cartoon

Managed to Miss: In 1827 Jules-Sébastien-César Dumont d’Urville managed to miss in his converted horse barge, the Astrolabe, that which the Rena hit.

So the short answer to the Prime Minister’s question as to how Maritime New Zealand could have gone faster and what it could have done differently is, in the style of a 111 call:

Yes, we need a bunkering vessel please, Astrolabe Reef.

 

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