Opinion piece by Rosemary Penwarden, published in the Wanganui Chronicle.
What kid doesn’t love dinosaurs? A big black dinosaur truck parks in the centre of town and smiling young people offer free bottled water and sign you up for some fun stuff.
You get your own ID card, swipe it at each display and are welcomed personally to learn about science. How exciting to learn that the exhaust fumes coming out of dad’s car used to be a dinosaur.
Only they didn’t. And it’s not science.
Fossil fuels were not formed from dinosaurs and most of the fossil fuels in the Taranaki region, where this truck has been touring, were laid down in the Cenozoic period after dinosaurs became extinct around 65 million years ago. Taranaki’s oil and gas is produced from decayed plant material, not dinosaur carcasses.
There is some science in the truck and some of the exhibits, along with the truck itself, are hired from the National Science-Technology Roadshow Trust, which New Zealand Oil and Gas (NZOG) sponsors to the tune of $50,000 a year and which has been travelling around New Zealand schools since 1990.
To any unsuspecting parent – and to the kids – it looks like the same old National Science-Technology Roadshow, but when I visited the “What Lives Down Under?” show in Wanganui, NZOG’s external relations manager John Pagani explained that this roadshow is a joint effort by NZOG, Canada’s TAG Oil and Australian company Beach Energy.
About 900 Wanganui kids visited the truck, and the roadshow is visiting Taranaki schools.
Each display emphasised our need for oil and gas and how safe it is, reinforced with images of sleek, shiny cars, expensive boats and planes. My impression of the displays was that they were done by marketing people, not scientists.
For example, the seismic testing display used a cute picture of a bat to explain the sonar technology. There was no mention, or aural examples, of the seismic explosions that have been shown to harm marine life.
There was a lot missing from NZOG, TAG Oil and Beach Energy’s version of “science”, notably any mention of climate change and the effect on the climate of exploring for and burning more oil and gas.
Why tour Wanganui and South Taranaki? Next year the companies will be drilling an exploratory well, Kaheru, 12km off Patea at a water depth of 20-30m in a previously unexplored part of the South Taranaki Bight just north of Wanganui.
The industry knows it hasn’t always managed its external relations well and this, Mr Pagani said, was a way of “trying to start a conversation”.
Why target children? Why not have a public meeting and explain to the adults what you’re planning? He said public meetings didn’t bring people in, while a roadshow would. It brings the parents, too, and staff were there to answer questions.
A young employee in the truck said she had been a bit concerned about the industry targeting children, but her boss thought public meetings disruptive, so they were going for something positive. Does being positive allow you to alter scientific facts?
It takes roughly six to 10 years for a newly-discovered oil or gas field, like Kaheru, to reach full production and, depending on its size, production might last a further 40 years. By then, around mid-century, most of the children at the roadshow will be taxpaying adults and parents.
By then – according to 97 per cent of the world’s climate scientists – we need to have stopped burning CO2.
If we are to take the science seriously, most of the assets on the oil and gas companies’ balance sheets must remain unburned. Only then, scientists say, is there a chance of preserving a habitable future climate.
Mr Pagani said he does not think it fair, all this talk about the destruction of our children’s future. He thinks there is a wonderful future ahead for them.
I agree but it has to be founded on a truthful understanding of climate science, and on the essential but short-term role of his industry as we transition to a low-carbon future.
As long as Mr Pagani and industry investors continue to push – even to kids – their version of a future more related to increasing profit than reality, there is little hope.
Rosemary Penwarden is a Dunedin grandmother, freelance writer and member of Oil Free Otago.