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An oil spill on iconic beaches: time for local capacity-building and shipping to go green

My heart is wrung by the toxic bunker oil killing birds and sea life along the beach where I grew up: the magnificent Bay of Plenty on New Zealand’s beautiful East Coast. My friends along the beaches at Mt Maunganui and Papamoa are distraught, and communities on Motiti and Mayor Islands and all along the Bay from the Mount to Maketu are horrified at the damage it will do to traditional, recreational and commercial fisheries, tourism and the hearts and minds of people who use these beaches every day, all year round.

Search for “Rena, Astrolabe Reef” and you will see it all.  Many questions remain, notably why a ship should hit a well-charted reef in fine weather, and why it took nearly a week of said fine weather before the first signs of activity took place to prevent the spilling of the 1700 tonnes of oil on board. And why a ship that has had a number of deficiencies identified in New Zealand in September and been detained for in Australia for other deficiencies to be made good should have been allowed to continue plying New Zealand waters. The Captain and First Officer have been arrested and Maritime New Zealand has dramatically stepped up its on the ground response, its level of communication with the affected communities and its training of volunteers to help remove the ghastly globs and dead and dying birds now washing up on the beaches.

More information will emerge over time, but this tragedy got me thinking about two of my passions: capacity-building and the low-carbon economy.

As I understand it, local ports like Tauranga, where the Rena was headed, used to have their own spill response capability, but legislative changes some years ago centralised this function in Wellington, our capital city, which is more or less in the middle of New Zealand at the southern end of the North Island. It appears that at least some of the delay in response was a result of this physical distance – 460 nautical miles.

Why not restore this function to the ports, with Maritime New Zealand taking a strategic analysis and training role? New Zealand has a small population, a tad over 4.4 million, but the length of our coastline gives us one of the world’s biggest exclusive economic zones. This makes it hard for us to police the area, so why not re-establish local emergency response capacity in a way that shares roles and resourcing? Inspection, education and where necessary enforcement of cultural, recreational and commercial shell and fin fisheries could be one role; search and rescue another; alongside emergency response capacity. Complement this with outreach and training for the communities who are spontaneously taking on an active kaitiaki and guardianship role and you have a skilled and committed resource. There are already many iwi and marae, dune and beach care groups and many other environmental and community groups of all kinds along the Bay of Plenty and with the right kind of support, their capacity could be further built up in many areas.

But why do we still have ships on the seas with such dangerous and outdated carbon-intense technology?

Ports and their approaches all round the world are vulnerable to maritime mishaps.Yet it’s possible to have ships with a mere modicum of lubricating oil on board that are powered by kite sails, solar panels and even solar panels on towers that can be turned to act as sails as well as energy-harvesters. These ships can cut a ship’s fuel costs by up to 90% and significantly lower its environmental impact. Even better, they’re beautiful – take a look here – reminiscent of the glory days of sailing ships! The solar cells can capture energy for storage, while the kites can be used in overcast weather to conserve battery charges. The batteries can then power electric engines for use in bad weather and maneuvering in and out of harbours and ports.

Electric engines have powerful, energy-efficient variable speed drives. They are nearly silent – a tremendous boon to our marine life now suffering increasing levels of disruption and physical damage from ever-growing levels of human-induced noise. We’d have to think of new ways to warn at-risk animals of imminent collisions  – and this is a great opportunity for innovative research and technology that could be applied more widely, for example to underwater turbines and the like.

Yes, batteries are toxic and dangerous things – but they don’t escape and float away to kill life in the water and on our coastlines: if they go down with a ship, they are far more readily recoverable than fossil fuels.

Oh, and this would help us on the way to a low-carbon economy – a report by the U.N. International Maritime Organisation said annual CO2 emissions from world shipping reached 1.12 billion tonnes in 2007, about 3.5% of total global carbon emissions, and that growing international seaborne trade and related fuel consumption will raise emissions from ships by 30 % to 1.475 billion tonnes by 2020.

Which will be the first world port to insist on a sustainable supply chain by accepting only wind and solar-powered vessels?

Hmmm…. how many pluses does all this add up to compared with one giant minus on the beach which I will visit to mourn over next weekend?

And of course, the fly in the ointment of this particular panacea is…. oil tankers. Not much point having them electric when they carry millions of litres of oil as their cargo. As Greenpeace said in a 25 February 1990 advertisement in the New York Times (I’ve rephrased it slightly), “It wasn’t the Exxon Valdez captain’s driving that caused the Alaskan oil spill. It was ours.”

Now that’s a whole new conversation!