Plans to ramp up fossil fuel exploration, coal mining and sea bed dredging have New Zealand environment groups worried.
It’s probably safe to assume that New Zealand’s conservative Prime Minister John Key likes the Lord of the Rings films and is probably partial to a little bit of Hobbit.
After all, ever since the short stumpy bloke with the hairy feet went off to try and chuck a ring down that hole in Mount Doom, New Zealand’s tourism bosses have been as happy as Orcs at an all-you-can-eat Elf buffet.
According to the New Zealand Tourism Board, about 13 per cent of overseas tourists between January and March took part in some sort of “Hobbit experience” while hanging around all those deep blue lakes, snow-tipped mountains and green, craggy valleys that are the cinematographer’s dream. The board credits the film for tens of millions of dollars in tourism income.
New Zealand has long pushed its international image under the signature “100 % Pure New Zealand” marketing brand. Last year the marketing people tweaked the brand to “100 % Middle-earth” to further cash-in on the film series’ international reach. The campaign saw a 23 per cent increase in visitors from the US, seen as a key market.
Filming for the third Hobbit movie ended in New Zealand only last week, with the final installment set for release sometime around December 2014. That leaves plenty more time for New Zealand’s tourism industry to playfully twiddle with Bilbo Baggins’ curly hair.
But just days before filming ended, National Party leader Prime Minister Key – who is also the tourism minister – delivered a YouTube address that made clear he thinks the future for New Zealand lies not so much in filming Middle-earth, but drilling it for oil and gas. He said:
New Zealand’s natural landscapes are part of what makes this country so special and unique. No matter where I am overseas people want to talk to me about how beautiful our scenery is…
I believe that energy and resources could well be a game changer for New Zealand. The next five years are crucial as we encourage further exploration. This is important because if we are to increase our oil and gas exploration by 50 per cent, we could potentially earn Royalties of up to $13 billion, which is huge…
Ultimately we need to grow our economy by increasing our earning potential. That’s the only way that our government can provide the resources that our families need and the jobs our families want.
Environment group Greenpeace New Zealand saw the awkward juxtaposition of their Prime Minister bragging about the country’s stunning scenery while pushing for a massive increase in oil and gas drilling.
Referring to the video, Greenpeace campaigner Nathan Argent wrote:
We considered mucking about with it, discussed how we might spoof it, critique it or counter it but then decided it was pretty much un-spoofable.
While an international audience might still think New Zealand is exclusively about bungie-jumping, wilderness hiking, sauvignon blanc and cavorting in The Shire, conservationists have become increasingly uneasy at the country’s environmental credentials and desire to boost mining and drilling.
Making good on a pledge to boost fossil fuel exploration, in April the government opened up 189,000 square kilometres of ocean for oil and gas exploration and a further 1,500 square kilometres onshore for fossil fuel hunting.
As well as offshore drilling, campaigners are concerned about plans to open up areas of ocean bottom to sea bed mining, with particular worries about the potential impacts on the already critically endangered Maui’s dolphin – the world’s smallest dolphin species. One Australian company has just lodged an application to mine ocean floor ironsands.
The government has also passed new laws to “protect offshore petroleum and minerals activity from unlawful interference” which were squarely aimed at discouraging protestors.
The move led to claims from environmentalists and the Labour opposition that Energy Minister Simon Bridges had pushed for the changes under pressure from oil lobbyists, which the minister denied.
Greenpeace campaigners hung a giant banner on a Wellington tower block, which in polite terms suggested they didn’t believe their minister.
Meanwhile, more than 44,000 people have signed a petition against the new laws.
On land, the John Key Government has rejected calls for a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing. In a report last year, Dr Jan Wright, New Zealand’s parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, said “oil and gas exploration permits that cover vast areas of the country have been granted to a number of companies” but she said a moratorium was not justified.
Campaign group Forest & Bird is also fighting a proposal from an Australian mining company for an open cut coal mine on the Denniston Plateau – home to a carnivorous snail, the iconic flightless kiwi bird and a suitably Middle-earthy landscape.
On an international stage, climate campaigners have also been frustrated by what they see as the country’s lack of enthusiasm for an ambitious global deal to cut emissions.
Late last year as the United Nations climate talks in Doha wrapped up, the Climate Action Network International jointly-awarded its “Colossal Fossil Award” to Canada and New Zealand for their lack of ambition.
In 2006, after visitor numbers had jumped 40 per cent, one New Zealand tourism boss said Lord of the Rings was possibly “the best unpaid advertisement that New Zealand has ever had”.
After all, you can’t argue that “100 % Pure” or “100 % Middle-earth” are far catchier phrases than “50 % more oil and gas drilling”.
Fellowship of the Drill, anyone?