Petroleum giant Anadarko are finally setting sail for the coast of Otago this summer, parking up 60 kilometres from the Peninsula’s iconic Taiaroa Head, which includes in its vicinity the breeding grounds and migratory paths of Royal Albatross, endangered hoiho (yellow-eyed penguin), little blue penguins, dolphins and whales. The company that had a 25% stake in the disastrous Deep Water Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico will start drilling test wells for oil and gas at previously unheard of depths in treacherous conditions, with relief vessels days away. The natural beauty Dunedin is blessed with is a huge attraction for visitors (our wildlife tourism industry is worth more than $100 million a year) and one of the greatest reasons I choose to live and work here.
Predictably, those in favour of extraction industries have moved quickly to try and frame this issue as Progress vs Stagnation. The city is hurting from a string of high profile redundancy and restructuring announcements so, they say, we need to take anything that comes along. Anyone who disagrees obviously wants Dunedin to wither and die. Unsubstantiated claims of thousand of jobs and millions of dollars about to gush up from the sea floor abound, despite the fact the region will take no royalties, and Anadarko will bring their own workers with them.
On the other side of the divide, a range of concerns have been aired about the effect it will have on our environment, locally and globally, even without any spills or leaks in the oil well’s lifetime. Seeing as we’ve already dug out more than four times the carbon we can safely burn without boiling the planet, everything that gets pulled out of the Canterbury Basin takes us further from halting the disastrous effects that will cause. As a Pacific Island nation, we have an ethical responsibility to do this for our neighbours, those who have contributed so little to this problem but are paying the ultimate price as their islands sink before our very eyes.
Oil and gas is a passionate issue. After the first mayoral forum in Dunedin last week, for a group of tourism industry operators, a man came and congratulated me afterwards for my presentation, my ideas, my passion and my vision for the city but there’s just no way, he said, he could vote for someone who was opposed to oil and gas extraction. This one issue was enough to override everything else I had said or done, this is how much of a big deal it is. With an election now less than six weeks away, the passion of this debate could make the Anadarko announcement one of the issues that defines the campaign, and when everyone in town has a strong opinion, you would think the Mayor would, too. Sadly, but not unpredictably, this is not the case.
Of the nine candidates running for the Mayoralty, I am the only one openly and emphatically opposed, with Steve McGregor worried about it being a bad look. The rest were either openly or tacitly supportive of the idea, ranging from thousands of jobs pro-oil lobbyist Andrew Whiley to the man made climate change sceptic Cr Lee “We really should be worried about global freezing” Vandervis. Clinging to the fence, Mayor Cull refused to answer whether he was in favour or not, saying it was a central government issue and therefore not something that he had any influence over. It was really about whether or not we could support Anadarko as a base here in Dunedin. The evasiveness here is only bested by the hypocrisy.
When it was announced that AgResearch was being restructured, costing over 70 skilled jobs at the local Invermay campus, Cull (rightly) rallied together with other local and regional leaders to fight the decision. This is also a central government issue that the Mayor of Dunedin has no influence over, but here he was kicking up a fuss on behalf of his community because that is what the Mayor is supposed to do. By avoiding the far more heated oil and gas debate, a game with far higher odds, Cull is essentially reserving the right to pick and choose the concerns of his electorate he listens to and takes seriously, and that is simply not good enough. All the rhetoric around having an open agenda for a sustainable city, developing an Energy Plan and a Transport Strategy for the future, it all rings hollow when he’s prepared to sit idly by and watch many of the problems be exacerbated by a multinational corporation who will give us nothing in return.
The public debate around oil drilling is showing no signs of being resolved any time soon, but the options for voters has become crystal clear. If they want to be represented by a Mayor who will actively resist the dominance of fossil fuels and the dinosaurs who promote them, Vote 1 Aaron Hawkins For Mayor.