Go for it, oil and gas opponents advised

Prof Patricia Widener.
Prof Patricia Widener.
The audience listens as  Associate Prof Patricia Widener speaks at yesterday's  seminar in Dunedin.
The audience listens as Associate Prof Patricia Widener speaks at yesterday's seminar in Dunedin.

Vocally oppose oil and gas exploration and you will probably not stop it going ahead, but the safety standards and pay-offs for the community will be higher.

That was the message at a seminar in Dunedin at the Centre for Sustainability yesterday, presented by visiting sociology academic Associate Prof Patricia Widener, from Florida Atlantic University.

She said there was no clear path yet to shift from fossil fuel use, and most people opposed the industry only when it encroached on their own lives.

''Oil is a non-issue until it's a local or regional issue,'' she said.

Around the world there was a wide range of safety standards and financial compensation arrangements, sometimes within countries.

She suggested some serious environmental breaches received no publicity; the level of attention a community could attract was crucial to its power to leverage benefits and safety standards.

The presence of a vocal opposition lobby ensured greater bargaining power for negotiating with exploration companies.

Despite this, opponents were frequently vilified by their own communities, and had far fewer resources than the industry they were trying to combat.

Financial compensation could have strings attached, such as confidentiality or conditions over how money could be spent.

However, money could buy silence from the community, even in the event of an environmental mishap, she suggested.

The industry invested heavily in its public image, often supporting tourism business ventures and community sponsorship deals.

In poor communities, often frustrated by a lack of investment by the government, it was easier to buy compliance.

Even Norway, considered an exemplar of the highest industry standards, was noticeably ''quiet'' now about climate change and its own oil industry.

Prof Widener suggested most people turned away from the problem of how to make the transition from fossil fuels, because it was so daunting.

She would like to see the debate expanded from the focus on climate change.

There were other serious concerns about the industry, she said, citing poverty, inequality and environmental contamination.

Expansion of extraction industries often accompanied a rise in poverty and inequality.

Prof Widener is visiting New Zealand on a sabbatical year to research the effects of oil and gas exploration on communities.

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