A rich local marine environment — and the immediate political fortunes of New Zealand’s government — hinge on the fate of the crippled cargo ship Rena, dramatically stranded on the Astrolabe Reef in the Bay of Plenty last week.  Substantial quantities of oil have poured out of the stricken vessel, soiling up to 60 kilometres of coastline.

A major clean-up is now under way (though the description is more than a touch euphemistic, given that the dispersant being used — Corexit 9500 — is thought by some scientists to be more poisonous than the oil it is dispersing).  But while maritime New Zealand’s latest public update is upbeat, powerful winds expected later today may yet hamper continuing salvage operations.  The complete break-up of the ship remains a distinct possibility.

Already more than 500 seabirds are confirmed dead and bizarre detritus has floated ashore from broken containers, including deer skins and packets of beef patties.  The New Zealand Environment Minister, Nick Smith, has described the incident New Zealand’s “worst maritime environmental disaster”.  The images of oiled birds and greasy waves are apocalyptic.

The captain of the Rena and the officer on watch when the grounding occurred have now been charged with “operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk”.  Yet it would be wrong just to focus on the guilt or innocence of those individuals.  Evidence has emerged that the Rena had multiple deficiencies for safe maritime voyaging — including lacking basic navigational equipment and charts — that had previously come to light in recent safety inspections in Australia and New Zealand.

The ship’s owner, Greek company Costamere Inc, has apologised for the debacle.  But like all business corporations, Costamere’s amoral raison d’être is the maximisation of profits.  The Rena is a flag of convenience ship, registered as Liberian.  The only purpose of a flag of convenience is to avoid good governance and operating costs rendering apparent contrition over the consequences of a poorly operated vessel necessarily hollow.  Being a commercial corporation means never having to say sorry — unless it is in your business interest to do so.

On the political front, New Zealand is only weeks away from a general election in which centre-right National incumbent John Key had been expected to easily triumph, but the Rena debacle has damaged the government.  New Zealand’s National Business Review made the obvious parallel, asking in a headline “could this be Key’s Katrina?”  As one pundit commented, the danger for Key is that he has gone from being perceived “likeable and relaxed to loose and unreliable” in the course of a single shipwreck.

In broader ideological terms, the wreck of the Rena is difficult for Key, a former foreign exchange trader who is conspicuously in favour of deregulation.  Environmental disasters are the inevitable consequence of simultaneous deregulation and cuts in public compliance and investigation budgets, coupled with the undertaking of risky resource developments — precisely the policy constellation favoured by Key.

And beyond the shadow of the Rena, lies the grim possibility of far greater catastrophes as fossil fuel companies explore New Zealand’s deep water oil reserves in the Great South Basin.  Exxon — not a company known for being terribly concerned about environmental risk — recently pulled out of exploring the Great South Basin after analysis of seismic survey data led to findings of “high technical risk” that were “further amplified by the remote location and the harsh operating environment”.  But other companies are still set on exploitation.  In the same week in August as Shell attempted to contain the public relations and environmental damage from a significant oil spill from one of its platforms in the North Sea, the fossil fuels giant was “pleased to announce” that it had acquired a new joint venture stake in exploring the Great South Basin.

The New Zealand Greens’ support has risen on the back of the Rena crisis, while the Labour Party may yet seek to turn the election into what is in effect a referendum on deep-water oil exploration.  Labour leader Phil Goff drew the obvious conclusion from the Rena fiasco earlier this week, commenting that:

“If we can’t cope with one ship that grounds offshore only a matter of kilometres from a major port, and it takes us so long to respond to that, what chance would we have of a failed oil well that was pouring hundreds of thousands of tonnes into the sea?”

There is no sign of the Nationalists’ vote crumbling at present — but the Rena saga will continue for some time yet.  Who knows what might wash up with the tide?

Peter Fray

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