In what amounts to the first substantial new investment by the government in economic development since last year’s election Minister Gerry Brownlee has announced a spend up of $20 million on the acquisition of geophysical data in New Zealand’s offshore petroleum bearing ocean basins.
With a government services spending drought firmly in place one has to admire whatever MED mandarin it was that managed to make the business case for the project. National are claiming it as an election promise delivered, but the reality is that it needed to happen no matter which government was in power and here’s why. In 2006 Crown Minerals went to Court to force petro-giant Exxon Mobil to hand over data that had been generated by the company and its partners but not exploited. About the same time the government began undertaking its own surveys. In 2007 there was another tender round for fresh exploration blocks but the response from major players was muted.
Notwithstanding that legal action by the Crown raises questions about ownership rights and foreign investment; by owning the survey data, the Crown has far greater influence over how it is used. It also mitigates the risk of any further expensive and wasteful Court actions by multi-nationals keen to defend their patch. Exploration companies build survey estimates into their financial reporting data, but will quite happily sit on this information until it suits them to act on it, possibly for decades. The Great South Basin is by far the most promising of New Zealand’s licence areas, but is also the most treacherous. At $55 per barrel small players could not possibly justify the several hundred million dollar invest required to bring a deep water well into production.
Offshore oil exploration is a dirty business and Exxon-Mobil in particular have an appalling environmental track record for which they make few apologies. So the government needs to be careful about how it spreads the financial and environmental risk associated with this game. On the upside, making the survey data available could potentially lead to a multi billion dollar exploration and production investment once the oil price rises again (which it no doubt will). Unfortunately because of the development timeframes involved, it is unlikely to contribute to the economic recovery in the short term.