Real climate challenge lies ahead

Updated

New oil and gas exploration permits will not be issued by the Government. Photo: Getty

The Government has made the first big decision on its way to tackling climate change, but the serious test still awaits.

Ending future offshore oil and gas exploration permits is a huge move, one that was anticipated by many following the Government's rhetoric on climate change, but which still came as a surprise to some.

The decision will see existing permits retained but no new ones issued for offshore exploration as the country moves towards the carbon-free future the Government has touted.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was quick to set the scene; business as usual for the time being, but tough choices had to be made.

“Unless we make decisions today that essentially take effect in 30 or more years time we run the risk of acting too late and causing abrupt shocks to communities and our country. I’ve seen that happen once in the 1980s and I don’t want to see it happen again,” Ardern said.

Keeping the regions happy

While the announcement will have little immediate impact on consumers, regional voters will be feeling uneasy.

Claims that no jobs will be lost are easily picked apart.

Jobs are unlikely to be lost tomorrow, but some companies will decide additional investment is better spent elsewhere while others may avoid New Zealand altogether.

The blow will be felt the hardest in Taranaki, currently New Zealand’s best performing economic region.

The man who tasked with smoothing over those concerns is Regional Development Minister Shane Jones, self-proclaimed “first citizen of the provinces”.

There was some irony in Jones, a long-standing industry man, standing next to Ardern, Greens co-leader James Shaw and Energy Minister Megan Woods as they made their announcement.

Shaw’s beaming grin showed just how huge a win the move is for the Greens, but it was in contrast to a myriad of grimaces from Jones.

Knowing full well that he will bear the brunt of the regional fallout Jones seemed to be using the opportunity to express to the country, through facial expression, how uneasy he was with the decision.

But he will also be quick to emphasise that it was New Zealand First who ensured all existing permits were protected.

There are 57 existing permits that could allow for oil and gas extraction for decades to come if new sources are found, a far more palatable option for the party than an immediate shutdown of the industry.

It will also give Jones more fodder to push for investment in the regions as chief on the mind of the people of Taranaki and other energy-reliant areas will be how such an important industry can be replaced.

Climate commission key

Tasked with creating many of those next steps will be a new, independent watchdog.

The climate commission will be established under the Zero Carbon Act, with an interim committee soon to be announced while the permanent body is set up.

Alongside its job of holding the Government to account for its progress, it will also provide advice on setting targets, reducing emissions and addressing climate risks.

It has its work cut out for it.

On the face of it, the decision to ban new offshore exploration permits will have little effect on our use of oil and gas.

Until people’s habits change or new taxes on fossil fuels are introduced, the country will continue to import what it needs from overseas.

Last week Jones was in Taranaki to soften the exploration ban blow, announcing $20m of spending for the region.

It included $150,000 on new energy initiatives, but the major money was for the restoration of a cathedral and better walking tracks.

That won’t replace the loss of the oil and gas sector. New industries will be needed.

Shaw told media he believed the end of exploration would be a boon for the economy rather than a hit, as clean energy industries surged forward.

“It does represent, I think, the greatest economic opportunity in at least a generation for the creation of new jobs and new technologies that our dependence on fossil fuel has held back for too long.”

At this stage, however, talk is cheap and unless real solutions are put forward the Government risks watching the exploration ban thrown out at the next election.