Jeanette Fitzsimons talks to David Room about Peak Oil (transcript)

MediaJeanette Fitzsimons talks to David Room about Peak Oil

David Room: What is the New Zealand Green Party's position on peak oil?

Jeanette Fitzsimons: Well, Green politics in New Zealand go in most part, back 30 odd years to the formation of the Values Party in 1972. And, I was involved in the '70's. And, we were well aware, in the '70's; that peak oil, would come at some stage. And, I guess, in an underground kind of way; it's guided our work, ever since. Which - and, I've spent most of my political career on an energy efficiency, fuel efficiency - new renewables. Trying to curb in energy waste. And, looking at getting beyond fossil fuels. So, of course - in the '80's, the primary reason for doing that; became climate change. And, that has driven the same agenda, really ever since. But, I've always been aware, that some time right about now; we would be facing the point, where oil production could no longer keep up with demand. And, price would rise. And, availability would decline.

I did a - what we would call in New Zealand; a Business Parliament Exchange with SHELL Oil, back in 1988. That's where a member of Parliament is placed for a week, with a business. And, has access to all aspects of that business. And, their staff. And, talks about it. And, so forth. And, I asked them in 1988, when do you expect oil supplies to start to deplete? And, he chose his words very carefully. And, he said; SHELL is working on the assumption that sometime between 2005 and 2010, the world's oil fields will be unable to pump it fast enough to keep up with demand. So, that was kind of useful information. And, I've used it since. What happened here was, we started talking publicly about it, around late 2003 - early 2004. When there was a sign that global crude oil prices, were on the way up. That didn't seem to be a lot of point in campaigning for it publicly around the peak oil issue, when prices were still so low. This wouldn't have been traction with the public. So, we campaigned for the same outcomes. But, using different arguments. Climate change efficiency. Environmental impact. And, so forth.

I raised the issue in Parliament, last year. And, asked our Prime Minister of Finance; when he expected peak oil to occur. And, what New Zealand was doing to prepare for that. And, he said; he didn't know what I meant by peak oil. The government in New Zealand, from initially saying; don't know what these crazy Greens are talking about. Moved quite quickly to - yes, peak oil will be a reality, sometime in the next century. And then, the Minister of Energy got very daring, and said; more likely in the first half of the century, than the second. And, they were pretty much following the IAEA and the United States Geological Survey production. They haven't yet, caught up with the fact that the IAEA, changed it's story in April this year. And, is talking about a much earlier date. But, they refused to acknowledge the date. But, they refused to acknowledge that peak oil may be upon us now. But, they are now acknowledging, that rising oil prices are not a temporary phenomenon. And, it is something that our economy has to adapt to. I think it's their job as government, not to scare the market. And, it's our job as Greens, to try and tell the public the truth. So, we've been showing that movie, "The End Of Suburbia"; around the country, to quite big audiences.

We campaigned on it, during the election campaign. We didn't get a huge amount of traction in the media. When it did suddenly burst into the media, was in January this year. When I began the new year with a public speech; that I call, The State of The Planet speech. A lot of politicians - or, political leaders, do a State of The Nation speech at the beginning of the year. So, I did a State of The Planet speech. And, I talked about the big threats to our future, being peak oil, climate change, and ecological breakdown. Basically, particularly in the oceans. And, the peak oil one, was really picked up. And, run in every media outlet in the country. And so, we've got our face aired with every story. And, I was expecting a huge backlash, that we were fear mongering. And, that we heard all of this before, in the '70's. And, that doesn't happen. And, the Club of Ryan was all wrong. That has only come from a very small handful of skeptics. There's been a lot more public acceptance, of the fact that oil prices are going up and staying up. And, we need to do something about it. Then I actually expected it.

We've been advocating the usual - sort of obvious things. Like, invest now in public transport, instead of roads. Invest now, in much better energy efficiency and renewable forms of electricity. And, bio-fuels. And, stop importing gas guzzlers. And, only allow fuel efficiency vehicles, in the country. Because, we don't make them here. I've also been callling for analysis of the New Zealand economy, sector by sector. Led by government. But, largely done by people from the sectors. For example, agriculture - what are the key vulnerabilities to oil prices or shortages. And, how could we change the way we do farming, to be less energy dependent. What will be the impact on our markets, of expensive oils? Does that mean we should change the product mix? Or, the way we produce it? Or, where we try to sell it? And, that hasn't happened yet. But, people are kind of getting used to the idea, that it might be wise to do a bit of planning of that kind.

The other thing, that was kind of interesting for the public, was; let's have a competition to design and run a medium sized, freighter ship. To do the New Zealand, Australia, Pacific Islands and back run, on the least fossil fuel. And, talked about the wind assisted shipping, that some countries have developed. Mainly in the '80's actually. Rather than more recently. So, the ideas are out there. And, I think we are seeing - as the leaders are promoting those ideas. They're not very mainstream yet. They're more mainstream, than I was expecting would happen in just a year.

David Room: Why do you think the New Zealand Green Party, is only the second political party in the world; to take a stance on peak oil?

Jeanette Fitzsimons: I don't know. I think alot of Green Parties may feel that the real message is climate change. That it's more serious than peak oil. Which it is. And, we can live without oil. But, we can not live without climate. And, they feel, it's a kind of corruption of a core message. Id on't know that. I wonder that some people may feel that way. My position of it is, even though climate change is the more serious issue. And, people find it extraordinarily hard to relate to something, that is so - sort of distant in time and place. And, their use of the car today, isn't going to make any notice at all to the climate. And, sort of foreseeable future that they can see. So, it's a very hard one to get across. The cause and effect. Where as peak oil; people notice, every time they fill up their car. Or, buy something that's oil dependent. And therefore, it's an easier motivator, I believe; for the sort of change that needs to happen anyway. There's not that many Green Parties, actually - with any numbers in Parliaments around the world. They're mainly in Europe. And there, I think are now focusing on climate change. And, any Green Party that was actually inside government, with an executive power; would have to be very careful. So, the governments would not scare the markets. We are independent in the New Zealand Parliament. And, that can adjust the scope, to talk about it.

David Room: It's interesting that - well, so many environmental organizations believe they need to choose between peak oil and climate change.

Jeanette Fitzsimons: They're two sides of the same coin. It is the same story. Resource depletion and pollution, are simply the consequence of moving and turning resources into waste. And so, resource depletion is a peak oil story. And, depletion is a climate change story. And, they're very closely connected. And so, we're searching for solutions, in the Greens. We're looking for how we get things to happen, that need to happen. And, I mentioned - is that if it weren't for climate change, New Zealand could address peak oil; by converting our very large resources of coal, into liquid fuels. And, while there are other environmental problems. And, ; it's essential that we shift public thinking and public policy in New Zealand. To the point, where we don't start using hugely more coal, in order to substitute for oil. We're quite small users of coal, at the moment. Although, we get for half of what we produce. But, we've got alot of coal in New Zealand. And, alot of my work is going into trying to make sure that is not seen as an answer to peak oil. David Room: Have you been in contact with other Green Parties? Say, in Europe? And, what has their reaction been?

Jeanette Fitzsimons: I haven't on this issue. It would be lovely to be able to spend time networking with Green Parties all around the world. It would be hugely exciting. And possibly, once I retire from this job; I might do a little bit of that. But, actually, just trying to do our job in this country; occupies nearly all my time. We did - all of our MPs, went to the Global Greens Conference that took place in Canberra. It's only been one. I think it was 2001. 70 countries were represented there. And, that was really great. But, the energy issues there, was climate change. Not peak oil. And, that included us. And, we do follow the ASPO website. And, in touch with the peak oil thinkers. I've been calling it, the end of cheap oil, more and more in the media. Because, peak oil seems to be a slogan, that alot of people are still not quite grasping. And, the end of cheap oil, is less catchy. But, perhaps more immediately understandable to people.

David Room: Earlier, you had mentioned that the Greens actually campaigned on "The End Of Suburbia" . Could you give us a little more understanding of what you meant by that?

Jeanette Fitzsimons: Well, I had public meetings around the country, during the campaign. Saying, come and watch this movie. And then, after showings of the movie, I would lead a discussion. Well, how do you think this is going to affect our community, right here? What are our key vulnerabilities, right here? What could we do about it, as individuals, in our own lives? What could we do about it, as a small community? What should government be doing about it? And then, talk about the Green Party Policy. About what to do about it. And, I found that people were very, very engaged with that DVD. I was typically having meetings with over 100 people, coming to watch it. And, they would stay for a couple of hours afterwards, to discuss. And, those are numbers, that I don't usually get at political meetings.

David Room: To what extent is New Zealand vulnerable to long term supply disruption and high oil prices?

Jeanette Fitzsimons: We're further from our markers, than any other nation on earth. We're small. We don't have the political clout to ensure we get our fair share of whatever oil is available, at any particular time. Clearly, the United States' agenda is to make sure you're not part of the Coalition of the Willing. And, you're not a client state of the United States; you won't get your share of the oil. It is what the U.S. military activity in the Middle East, is all about. Of course. And, New Zealand has had a much more independent foreign policy stance, than Australia. We did not send troops to Iraq. Although, we did to Afghanistan. To our shame. We have a known nuclear policy, that annoys the United States, considerably. And, that we don't allow either ships carrying nuclear weapons. Or, nuclear powered ships into our ports. We don't accept, nor neither confirm or deny policy of the U.S. And, U.S. ships, generally don't come here. So, we're not seen as most favored nation. And, couldn't expect to be looked after, when oil was short. So, that is major vulnerability.

We are very much a trading nation. We're very much an exporter of primary products. Which tend to be heavy and bulky, in relation to their value. And so, we're very dependent on shipping. Obviously, one of our exports at the moment - which is whole, unprocessed lumber logs. And, would certainlly not continue, as our oil prices continue to rise. It certainly won't be sensible to use oil to ship a low value commodity like that around the world. That is perhaps, quite a good thing. Because, we have a very big plantation forestry industry. And, that is potentially a source of energy. And, we're working now on trying to use more of the forestry waste in co-generation plants. In the timber processing industries and others. That can move up into the future, into purpose grown forest; for a range of bio-mass conversion fuels. So, we've got some big plateaus. In terms of living without oil. We've got space and a lowish population. Which means we've got room to grow bio-mass fuels. We've got relatively good solar input. We've got the best wind conditions in the world, for wind electricity.

And, we've got a kind of - what we call, a number 8 wire mentality. Meaning, we've got a an attitude that perhaps comes from the pioneering days. Of can do, make do. Find a way around obstacles. Which I think, it hasn't all disappeared. It's in the process of disappearing; will stand us in good state. But, our vulnerabilities - that we are dependent on alot of imports. Particularly, is industrial imports. We don't make any ball bearings, in this country. Now, if trade were to stop. Which it won't. But, if trade were to stop; we would be crippled, economically. In a way the United States wouldn't. It would just shift things around within a giant country. And, it would manage.

David Room: Well, you mentioned that New Zealand is a trading nation. I'm wondering, if this identity might change a bit in the energy scarce future.

Jeanette Fitzsimons: Well, the Greens are running a strong Buy Kiwi Made campaign. And, have just won the opportunity with the new government. To do that with some government funding. To try and make people aware of the country of origin they're buying. And realize, that if they spend their money on brand of biscuits; they are supporting jobs in New Zealand. And, if they spend it on a different brand of biscuits; that may be just the same, they may be supporting jobs in some other place in the world. So, we're trying to build a better brand loyalty to New Zealand. And, I think that is part of a wider agenda of more local production for local needs. Which is the way we will have to go, when oil becomes really, really expensive. I think farming will have to change, as well. It's very energy dependent. We have a high use of noxious fertilizers. Which of course, they're all made from natural gas. Big natural gas resources, peaked in 2001. And, are declining steeply now. There may be more fines. But, it's not as big as the ones we've had. So, natural gas is no longer abundant. And, we may end up importing nitrogen fertilizer, instead of making it here. Which means, we're going to have to reduce our use of it, when it becomes too expensive. Farming is also quite energy intensive. In terms of irrigations and berry sheds. And, so forth. We have opportunities. And, also vulnerabilities.

David Room: How does New Zealand's transport and land use patterns, contribute to the vulnerabilities?

Jeanette Fitzsimons: Well, we're a long, thin country. With a low population. So, we have a very high use of transport fuel per person. We have poor public transport. A skeletal rail system. Much of which, has been allowed to run down. And now, doesn't carry as much frieght. Or, as many people, as it could move. And, it's much more easy to be fuel efficient in transport; when you've got a higher population density. We're quite a centralized country. For example - our big dairy producing company, which is a player in the world dairy market; has closed down most of the small dairy factories around the country. And, centralized in quite a small number of giant factories; making cheese, milk powder, butter casing. And, so forth. And, so the milk - which is so in a high bulk, high weight. Relatively low value; is trundled long distances. It may well find, that it's got to be a bit more decentralized in the future. If you're taking the water out of the milk, to create milk powder; it may be sent closer to the farm.

On the other hand, I think we'll go back to the sort of tiny scale and basic dairy factories, that we had in the past. Fontera - which is our very big dairy company, has recently built an inland port. Which enables it to m ove all of it's product, out of it's dairy factories. By rail, rather than road. And, that is making a big difference, in terms of the number of lowerings off the road, in a year. We need to build up our rail system. And, get it used much more. For frieght and for passengers. Because, you're a long, thin country. And, we have a railway line, virtually from the top to the bottom; without a lot of branches - but some. And, for long haul stuff, that's a sensible way to send it.

David Room: Could the recent talk by the government, about the emergency response to short term oil shorages; be a back door way of thinking about peak oil?

Jeanette Fitzsimons: I think it's been quite unhelpful, actually. Because, IEA requirements for an emergency response plan, is still geared to what happens when the tap suddenly turns off. And, you can't do any planning. And, by definition; anything you can do planning for, isn't really planning for that emergency response. And so, it focus' on carless days. Alot of speeding limits. Getting cars off the road. Rationing and so forth. Which are unpopular. And, often usually in certain cities; very unfair in the way that they operate. I'm trying to get across the idea, that the way to handle peak oil; is to do some real sensible planning. To invest in rail and public transport. And, much more efficient vehicles and bio-fuels. So, we don't have the sudden interference with our personal life. With all that you would have, if suddenly you are not allowed to drive your car on a Thursday. No matter how important your reason for the particular trip one Thursday night may be. You've got this bureaucratic law, that you can't drive on a Thursday. And, you might make all sorts of unnecessary and trivial trips on a Wednesday. So, that's not the way I'd like to see it handled. And, the media and the public, have not understood the difference between the two.

David Room: Okay. Well, tell me about the peak oil Toolkit?

Jeanette Fitzsimons: Oh, the Toolkit. That was just a - in an election campaign, you've got to do something to try and get some media out. Try and get some publicity. And, we called it a Toolkit. Because, then I had a toolbox on the - I released it in the press conference. A few media came. I had a car toolbox on the desk. And, as I talked about each initiative; I pulled something out of the toolbox, as an illustration. The one that made it on TV, was I had a child's little, model toy Hummer. And, a model of a tiny, little car, that was just a fraction of the size. And, sort of sat it on the roof of the Hummer. And said; you know, we've got to buy a lot less of these. And, more of these. But, I only had little wind turbines. And, various other things, in the toolbox. And, you can read about the toolbox on our website. It was just a selection of the policy initiatives that we wanted to promote, in order to prepare for peak oil.

David Room: Can you give us your website?

Jeanette Fitzsimons: Greens.org.nz.

David Room: What does New Zealand risk, if they rely on the market to respond to global oil peak?

Jeanette Fitzsimons: Well, markets can't respond to things that are happening, as fast as this is happening. The only way for the markets to go, really - is for the price to go so high; that it chokes off demand. And, it won't be trivial or superficial. Or, optional demand, that it chokes off. It will be the survival of the poor, that it chokes off. Because, the fuel, simply go to those who can afford it. Or, those who got an expense account for their businesses. And, that's a very bad way to manage scarcity, with just through price. If everybody had the same income, that would be a very good way in managing scarcity. But, because a dollar means enormously more to someone doing a cleaning job on the fringes of the city. Than it does for the business executive; living in an apartment, where everything is in walking distance. You know, it's a very unfair way of managing it. And, the market - it can't suddenly create a sound rail system, when it's needed. Because, it takes year and years to do that. And, it takes big public investment. I don't have the personal choice, however much money I've got; to take a train, instead of my car. Because, there's no train there to take. And, I can't do anything with my personal wealth, to cause there to be a train there for me to take. That's got to be done by pubic policy. Is out of shared rresources. Which is called taxation.

David Room: So, you're pushing Parliament to do a study on the vulnerabilities?

Jeanette Fitzsimons: We've advocated, for that sort of study to be done, sector by sector. No one's picked it up, yet. But, actually we've just had our election. The government has just been formed. Parliament doesn't meet for the first time - the new Parliament doesn't meet for the first time, until next week. So, there hasn't been alot of time since the election. But, we've been advocating there should be. And, I suspect, that if government doesn't move; business will move first. And, I suspect that some big companies are already doing their own peak oil assessment of vulnerabilities. I suspect that Fontera's already done it. And, that's why it just moved to rail. Moved away from trucking. But, it would be quite good, if it were done sector by sector. Rather than, company by company. Like, we need the whole tourism industry, to sit down and say; what does this mean for tourism? It means, there's going to be fewer people that can afford the airfares to fly here. Our tourism is based mainly on people who fly into the country. Hardly anyone comes by ship. There is of course, some domestic tourism. But, that's energy intensive, as well. So, if we want to continue to make our livelihood out of tourism; then we've got to change the kind of tourists we're targeting. We've got to get away from the people who come for five days. Move constantly over that five days. From place to place. Looking at it, out of the window of a moving vehicle. And, fly out again. We've got to target people, who will come for two months. Stay alot longer. Spend more, while they're here. Have a real experience of the place. But, probably only do it every ten years. Instead of twice a year.

David Room: How do you think about the oil depletion protocol?

Jeanette Fitzsimons: It would be really excellent, if we could get international agreement on a way to deal with this collectively. And, share what's there, in a fair way. It would be great. And, in a way; manage the rate of depletion, by not overshooting. I think that is an excellent. But, when I look at how extraordinarily hard it is has been. To get any international action on climate change. And, how many years it's taken. I mean - I wish Colin Campbell, every little last bit of luck. But, I don't like his chances.

David Room: Is this a law, that you might consider introducing?

Jeanette Fitzsimons: You could certainly do it in a command economy. Where you could limit the amount of fuel imported into the country. And, say; this is all we've got, folks. I don't know how you would implement it in our sort of economy. I'd certainly would be interested in looking at promoting the idea here. But, if you introduce legislation that is going to say - we're going to reduce our oil consumption, by so much every year. How do you actually make that happen? I mean, we've been trying to do it with greenhouse emissions. Haven't we? For some years now. With a spectacular lack of success. Even though we are signed up for Kyoto. But, it's been good talking to you.

David Room: Yes. Thank you, so much.

Jeanette Fitzsimons: Thank you, very much. Bye, bye.

MediaJeanette Fitzsimons talks to David Room about Peak Oil