There is a lot to debate in regard to oil exploration around New Zealand, both on land and in the adjoining seas. Oil already makes a substantial contribution to our economy and provides well-paid employment. It has the potential to do a great deal more. Of course there are dangers. Accidents can cause loss of life and environmental damage. Manifestly, this is not peculiar to oil. As we know too well, people can die in coal-mining, or in off shore fishing, and there are potential environmental consequences from farming, especially intensive dairy farming, which is at the heart of our present relative economic security. For some there is also the matter of anthropogenic global warming, which condemns oil exploitation and coal mining, however safely conducted.
We need to reconcile these things. We need to apply serious cost/benefit analysis. How much value do we put on the potential revenues and employment possibilities that might come from exploitation of our untouched oil assets?
In the light of the widely-accepted appeals for greater expenditure on a variety of social needs: education, health, superannuation, can we really forgo this potentially substantial revenue stream? Well, perhaps the answer is, only if we are satisfied that the danger is as great as some of the most vociferous critics say it is. Only if the risk is substantial and the ‘cost’, if the feared event takes place, is such as to overwhelm the benefit. These sorts of calculations are not easy to do but the data is frequently available. We all know that there is a risk of fatal injury from driving cars (and a slightly lower risk from flying in aeroplanes). We haven’t done a careful calculation but most of us accept that the value to us of these activities outweighs the risk. We don’t simply focus on a simple application of that old stand-by: ‘what is the worst-case scenario?’.
But, of course, this is a personal benefit and personal cost and it is different where the benefits and costs are collective. A person living contentedly on their life-style-block, might place relatively little value on social development but, correspondingly, a higher value on the preservation of a pristine environment. Or, like Al Gore, they may affect great concern for (say) global warming whilst, at the same time, insist on flying in their corporate jet. In the case of these collective decisions, all we can expect the government to do is to make an assessment on what they take to be the best interests of the community as a whole, on the basis of the risks as they assess them and on the basis of such data and opinion as they may acquire from expert sources and community groups.
By contrast, Greenpeace represents persons who see no need to go in for this kind of subtle, rational debate, based on facts and logic. They know they are right, and they couldn’t possibly be wrong. I came to this point in my 16 October blog, ‘Greenpeace and the temptations of utopianism’, when I commented on how the Russians had dealt with (or, now, are dealing with) a Greenpeace ‘protest’ against a Russian oil-drilling platform. Now we have them off the Raglan coast, attempting to obstruct a similar operation in New Zealand waters. The crucial question is, what should we do about it? The government has made the cost/benefit assessment envisaged above and passed legislation on the matter (The Crown Minerals Act), which prohibits protest vessels from approaching closer than 500m to vessels involved in what is a lawful and officially approved activity. As a matter of fact, it seems that the law has already been defied. But before addressing the question as to what should be done, it might be instructive to consider the response of another state to similar situations.
Earlier this year, Greenpeace activists invaded a Swedish nuclear power plant and engaged in the usual activities they adopt when intending to obstruct an activity to which they object. As is also usual, they were arrested and at the conclusion of the subsequent court proceedings, they were fined amounts which varied between $200 and $500. In the context of the enormous wealth of the parent organisation, this is no penalty at all. In an earlier case which involved boarding a nuclear-power support vessel, the relevant magistrate managed to release the Greenpeace group sufficiently quickly for them to return to their power boats, and board the ship in question for a second time! Both these examples apply to Sweden but there are plenty of examples from around the ‘western’ world which have the same characteristics. Governments, and presumably their communities (certainly, their magistrates), seem to indulge Greenpeace activists as if they were merely naughty, or high-spirited, children.