Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The policy response

With the Rena now likely to sink and spill the rest of its fuel and cargo across one of our busiest ports and favourite holiday spots, its worth thinking about the future. Beyond the immediate cleanup, what policies can we put in place to prevent or mitigate such messes in the future?

I asked the Greens over Twitter, and their response was

For a start: 1. No deep sea drilling 2. Invest in infrastructure & capability of Maritime NZ... Also better engagement with communities when disasters do happen.
All of which seem like good ideas. The Rena has exposed the sheer inadequacy of Maritime NZ's oil spill management plans, which are gone into in some detail by Brian Rudman in today's Herald. Their three-tier response model places a significant part of the responsibility on organisations which either do not care (polluters) or are not properly equipped to deal with serious spills (regional councils). Equipment needed to deal with severe spills is stranded in Auckland and takes significant effort to transport. The result is that they are effectively helpless when a big incident comes along. Which in turn make the government's plans to allow deep-sea drilling, with all the risks that that entails, pure madness. As for the public, as we saw on Monday morning when oil began washing up and was left to locals to clean up (with no warning or guidance from officials, let alone organisation or reassurance that something would be done soon), the government's communication has been... lacking.

But there are other things we can do too. For example, its hard to understand how a ship can run aground on a charted reef in calm weather, unless the crew were negligent. The ship's captain has already been charged with operating a ship in a dangerous manner, and the penalties there are appropriate for individuals. But clearly there's a regulatory problem here as well. There are also issues around penalties for spills - the Maritime Act allows for a fine of up to $200,000 for a discharge of a harmful substance from a ship, while the RMA allows for fines of up to $600,000 for discharging contaminants without a resource consent, with strict liability. But that's SFA to a shipping corporation, and likely to be lower than the cost of running a ship safely so that it does not leak oil everywhere. So we need far better regulation of shipping, and far higher penalties for breaches, with actual enforcement so that captains and companies know they will face those penalties. Anything less is just inviting this to happen again.