• Tidal Power on Whose Seabed?

last modified August 25, 2012 by strypey

Danyl Strype comments on the proposed use of the seabed by private companies to generate electricity as an example of further privatization, following Labour's raupatu of the foreshore and seabed.

For grassroots environmentalists concerned about both climate change and the impact of development, 'Think Big' renewable energy projects like hydro-lakes and wind farms have always been a tricky issue. On the one hand they have the potential to replace the large-scale coal and gas fueled power plants which currently provide the majority of the country's electricity, spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in the process. On the other, they have the potential to have a major negative impact on the landscape, on local ecosystems and on nearby communities - witness the drowning of a significant part of Cromwell for Lake Dunstan when the Clyde Dam was completed. These issues are particularly important for Māori, for whom development brings up issues of mana whenua (right to the land) and their cultural traditions attached to the landforms and lifeforms of an area.

Issue 1 of 'Energy', which bills itself as "The magazine of New Zealand's Energy Industries", reports on a proposed by Crest Energy to develop a tidal electricity generation 30m beneath the surface of the Kaipara Harbour, 75 km north of Auckland, the country's largest energy drain. Tidal turbines can generate power using both the flood (in-flowing) and ebb (out-flowing) tides. Unlike wind and hydro-lake generation which are highly dependent on favorable weather, tidal power can be generated 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The Kaipara project is projected to be able to generate around 200MW of electricity, nearly as much as Meridian Energy originally claimed for their proposed Project West Wind at Makara. According to the Makara Guardians group, Project West Wind has more recently been estimated at about half that original projection. So even if Crest's estimates are similarly exaggerated, their tidal generation plant is likely to be just as productive as Makara, if not more, without being visible or audible to anyone who isn't diving in the deep water channel of the Kaipara Harbour.

For the new breed of conservative business greenies this sort of project adds strength to their claims that renewable energy is an economically viable alternative to convential generation methods now, as well as being an ultimately unavoidable one in the long term. Although I recognise that tidal power looks to be a stronger contender than turbine planting on windy hillsides or further drowning of river valleys, the main issue that tidal power raises in my mind is this - who owns the seabed?

The passing of the Labour government legislation asserting state ownership of the entire foreshore and seabed along the coast of Aotearoa (except those bits owned under private title, owned mostly by pākeha farmers) was immediately followed by a flood of applications for seabed mining permits and marine farm consents. Stretches of coast that were guaranteed under the Treaty of Waitangi to remain under iwi and hapū control were now being flogged off to the highest bidder, in practice, if not in title. Their traditional owners having neither the ability to reject proposals that would damage submarine landforms, reducing their mauri - their ability to support life, nor even a share of any payment made by the companies profiting from the use of their traditional property.

Returning to the article in Energy, electricity generation in the Raukawa Moana (Cook Strait) is an option currently being investigated by the Crown Research Institute NIWA (National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research) and at least one private company, Neptune Power of Christchurch. It quotes a spokesperson for AWATEA (Aotearoa Wind and Tidal Energy Association), who says there are a number of companies investigating harnessing the huge potential for tidal power generation in harbours and straits around the country.

The question is, who will ensure that these developments are installed and maintained in a way that is sensitive to the local marine ecosystems? Māori see this as part of their role as kaitiaki (guardians), final authority to make decisions resting with the iwi or hapū which has mana whenua in the area. However, through its foreshore and seabed legislation, the government has relegated Māori to the role of 'interested party' in the complex, costly and time-consuming hand-wringing exercises of the Resource Management Act, which almost inevitably favour industrial development over the ecological and cultural concerns of local people.

There are no easy solutions to climate change and decolonisation. However, I would caution large environmental groups like Greenpeace to temper their enthusiasm for Think Big developments that are being justified using environmental arguments. I would suggest concerned greenies question the motives of private comanies trying to talk up the large-scale renewable generation industry in Aotearoa and listen to what Māori have to say about these issues.


Originally published on Aotearoa.Indymedia.org (June, 2007)


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