Eastern Bay of Plenty, New Zealand
Michael McGinnis

There have been three well-publicized global catastrophic oil spills in the marine waters off the United States — Santa Barbara (1969), Exxon Valdez (1989), and the Gulf of Mexico (2010). In the darkness of the oil catastrophes reside the ethical compromise of climate change and our continued reliance on fossil fuels.

Each oil spill has a unique political, ecological, and economic context. However, each spill shares a common story about the ways human beings can change the character of nature, and as a consequence, become more vulnerable and exposed — inadvertent authors of their own distress.

Michael McGinnis

In the wake of the United Nation’s declaring 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity, the world witnessed British Petroleum’s catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In Blowout in the Gulf, UCSB Professor Bill Freudenberg and his colleague Robert Gramling noted, “Despite our habit of referring to oil ‘production,’ the reality is that the 20th century was an unprecedented exercise in oil ‘destruction.’” Commercial and recreational fishing communities continue to suffer in the Gulf. The oil spill silences the sound of spring, killing birds, turtles, mammals, and many other species.

I spent several months interviewing local people who live along the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand, the area now struck by the unhappy plight of marine life and coastal economies dependent on tourist dollars. My focus was to explore the marine environment and policies of the region.

The oil spill in the Bay of Plenty along the east coast of New Zealand is yet another replay of the tragedy of our continued reliance on fossil fuels. The spill reflects a deeper concern — our fossil fuel economies have devastating consequence on the world’s oceans, as indicated by climate disturbance (e.g., the rise of sea surface temperature, the acidification of the sea, the loss of ecological productivity). An estimated 350 tons of oil have leaked from a 775-foot vessel called the Rena that remains stuck on the Astrolabe Reef. More than 70 of the Rena’s containers are floating in the sea with some cargo landing ashore. Well over 1,300 birds have died in the spill. But this number of marine life casualties is an estimate at best.

New Zealand is known as the seabird capital of the world, with about 85 different seabirds that breed on some of the 400 islands of the country, including little blue penguins, fairy terns, and many Northern Hemisphere birds, such as godwits and sooty shearwaters, that have migrated south for spring. Many of these bird colonies are currently threatened by a spill that is far from being controlled. The fact is that there is no way to engineer our way out of a spill; there is no way to contain or control the effects of a spill. The marine and coastal areas by the spill are essential habitats for a range of threatened and endangered species, including dotterels. The marine area of the Bay of Plenty is used by a diverse number of marine mammals as well.

With the mix of oil, dead sea birds, and the rubbish from the cargo in the news, the other casualty of the spill may very well be New Zealand’s 100% Pure global brand. In the 1980s, New Zealand was known as one of the more progressive states in terms of environmental planning and management. The ideals of that era’s land-use planning and the green brand marketed by the country’s tourist industry may have come to an end. The green veneer is washing off, and showing its true color. Oil has washed up along about 37 miles of the coastline of New Zealand. There are currently eight offshore rigs in the marine areas off the west coast of the country (offshore Taranaki), and this number of rigs is estimated by the Ministry of Economic Development to double by 2020. Thirty-seven percent of the landscape is in some type of dairy production. The pollution from industrial-scale dairy farming impacts the rivers, contaminates the soils across the landscape, and eventually spills into the sea as well.

This week the government of New Zealand expressed concern that the Rena may sink, and that the 1,400 additional tons of fuel remaining on board will spill into the sea. If this occurs, it will be a catastrophe of global proportions. The spill is New Zealand’s worst environmental disaster in decades.

Does this sound familiar to you? This disaster is not one that we are far removed from. Many of the birds that visit our shores are trying to nest down under. The risk of a container vessel accident or oil-related spill is present in our front yard, in the Santa Barbara Channel’s waters. Thousands of vessels use the channel to transport goods to the north and south of the Los Angeles-Long Beach Harbor, which is the largest port of entry in the U.S. The probability of a vessel accident is one facet of our globalizing economy.

As international news coverage continues, serious questions are being asked about the capacity and capability of New Zealand to manage the risks posed by offshore marine activities. The country does not currently require environmental impact statements for proposed resource development in marine areas beyond 12 nautical miles (nm). While the country has jurisdiction out to 200 nm, there is no public process or risk assessment for proposed marine resource development for a range of uses (marine farming, sea bed mining, offshore oil development, wind and wave energy) that are currently proposed in New Zealand’s marine area. The country has yet to develop a comprehensive ocean governance framework and is far below international standards in this area. Yet marine areas of New Zealand are being explored for offshore oil. The high risk, low probability of offshore rig or pipeline spills are often underestimated and poorly understood by the kiwis.

Overall, there remain substantive long-term impacts from a spill: Social costs are underreported by the media; ecological costs and impacts are unseen and poorly evaluated; and economic costs are underestimated and poorly understood. With respect to offshore oil development and marine vessel accidents, catastrophic events are not exceptions to the rule: oil spills are part of the history of oil development and the transportation of goods by the sea. The industrial infrastructure supported by oil development is riddled with catastrophic spills. The harsh oceanographic conditions that often exist off the coast exacerbate the ability of human beings and institutions to respond to these events. The economic benefit of offshore oil development is outweighed by the risks posed by a serious accident and the related costs to New Zealand’s tourist economy.

Santa Barbara is in a unique position to empathize with the suffering of life caused by the New Zealand spill. As we hold our breath at yet another catastrophic event, we can sense the loss of springtime for the birds and other marine life that depend on the rich waters of the country. A bird’s nest is toxic goo, its young are rolled up in a ball alongside the toxic foam that lines the beach. Some of the bodies of the lost marine life float on the surface, still life, stillborn.

The challenge in the face of such hardship and destruction is to find some hope to move forward. Catastrophe is a teacher; the event can represent the beginning of a renewed social capacity for ways of knowing and organizing. In each story of catastrophe, we find the bridge between the real horror, despair and savagery of human impacts and the sense of reverence that is needed to persevere and protect.


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