10 questions with ... Terrence Loomis

In this installment of '10 questions with ...' we feature Dr Terrence Loomis, whose book Petroleum Development and Environmental Conflict in Aotearoa New Zealand: Texas of the South Pacific will be published later this month.

1. How would you describe your book to a non-anthropological audience?

That’s a tricky question but obviously an important one for the continued relevance of our discipline. Whether I was speaking to a group of professionals or a popular audience, I’d probably begin by talking about national development and citizen wellbeing. States seeking to ‘grow’ their economies (I have a problem with the growth paradigm but I’ll set that argument aside for now) by expanding resource extraction face a number of dilemmas these days they didn’t in the past. These include having to deal with the rising influence of transnational corporations on domestic politics and democratic institutions, and mitigating or avoiding environmental damage from increased extraction activities.

A considerable social research literature has developed about how states manage these dilemmas and the social conflict that often accompanies expanded resource extraction. Recently, a global boom has occurred in unconventional oil and gas development (including the controversial practice of fracking) which mounting evidence indicates is doing major harm to communities, local environments and human wellbeing. Added to this are international pressures and demands from concerned citizens to address climate change by transitioning from fossil fuel dependence to a clean-energy economy.  These new dilemmas constitute additional flash-points for increasing social conflict between state/petroleum corporation ‘collaboration’ and civil society environmental movements, community protest groups and indigenous peoples. 

In this book I take an in-depth look at how these dilemmas are being played out in Aotearoa New Zealand. The country at present is a bit player as far as the global oil industry is concerned but some oil companies and Minister Simon Bridges hope for a ‘game-changing’ boom (hence my subtitle “Texas of the South Pacific”). I attempt to identify the strategies petroleum corporations have employed to promote and defend the industry; the manoeuvres the New Zealand government has adopted to facilitate extractive development and deal with critics of government policy; and how government responses to environmental protest action have detrimentally affected institutional relations between extractive corporations, the state and the community sector. My main purpose is to focus attention on the choices Kiwis have about their energy future, the direction of national development and preservation of the natural environment. 

2. Why now?

That will probably be obvious to anyone concerned about the effects of globalisation, the question of sustainable development and climate change. New Zealand ratified the COP 21 Paris Climate Accords which came into effect recently. Yet the recent Australia New Zealand Business and Climate Change conference concluded the Government lacked a comprehensive plan with cross-sector involvement for transitioning to a low-carbon economy that will meet our international commitments.

At the same time, the Government is pursuing a contradictory policy of promoting the expansion of oil and gas development to grow the national economy. The Guardian (4 November 2016) noted: “Scientists have calculated that half of all known gas reserves and a third of oil reserves cannot be burned if the world is to meet the Paris limit of 2C of warming. This makes the oil companies’ current business model of continuing exploration for new reserves nonsensical…” Some critics accuse the Government of pursuing a ‘growth at all costs’ course with their Business Growth Agenda, while undermining – through various legislative reforms and policy interventions – the ability of local communities to plan and manage their own sustainable development

3. What kind of assumptions do you unsettle in this book?

I can think of at least three immediately:

  • That social conflict over resource exploitation and environmental destruction primarily takes place at the level of policies, politics and street demonstrations.  he more profound struggles and effects occur around institutional relations and values.  his is where real power is exercised;
  • That continuing public debate over the benefits and costs of petroleum development is important for determining whether such development should occur, and that it can take place in conjunction with moves to address climate change. ‘Manufacturing debate’ is one of the key strategies of the petroleum industry, borrowed from the tobacco industry; and
  • That local citizens and councils ultimately will have to decide whether and how oil and gas development takes place in their region. Under the current legislative and policy regime, this is decidedly not the case.  The ability of communities, indigenous peoples and environmental NGOs to influence extractive development has been weakened not strengthened. New Zealand is not dissimilar to a number of other ‘frontier’ petroleum regions in this regard, like Argentina, Mexico and Indonesia.

4. What drew you to your topic?

I was living near Gisborne when several exploration and production companies received permits to start surveying and drilling wells, and sparked a community outcry against the environmental threats of ‘fracking.’ There were also obvious connections to the issue of climate change. I found myself attending meetings and symposia, gathering information about unconventional oil and gas development, getting involved in social networks, monitoring policy developments and ministerial pronouncements, making submissions to the district council etc.  At some stage it occurred to me that as an anthropologist (as well as an erstwhile government policy advisor) I had a unique perspective and tools to bring to this milieu of policy contention and conflict. 

5. How was your publisher?

Pretty good actually. We had a friendly debate at the beginning about whether this was a book for a strictly academic audience or a popular exposé (ala Nicky Hager I suppose).  We eventually agreed there was a role for what my editor termed “scholarly advocacy” and my book would fit within a line of Lexington Books’ publications featuring studies that broadly adopted that kind of kaupapa. 

6. What’s your favourite part of the book?

The chapter on “Selling the East Coast.” I was directly involved in many of the experiences recounted there and was fortunate to be privy to much behind the scenes information and many developments that I think lends richness and believability to the account. I guess that’s why I feel passionate about the way local citizens and tangata whenua are being misled and disenfranchised by corporate misinformation and legislative and ministerial manoeuvres, while being assured they have a final say in whether and how oil and gas development will occur on the East Coast.   

7. What have you learnt about yourself as a writer as a result of this?

I used to spend a lot of time working my way carefully through an initial draft of an article or manuscript. I found I write more effectively when I first develop a broad organising chart of what I want to say (a bit like a musical score), remind myself who my audience is, and then just push ahead spontaneously. As long as I’ve scheduled a block of time afterwards for re-thinking and re-organising, it can be very liberating.

8. Would you write another book?

Sure, if I live long enough. Franz Boaz did, so maybe I’ve got a shot. Goodness knows the issue of how we wean ourselves off dependency on fossil fuels and reduce the impacts of extreme climate change on future generations is THE critical challenge of our time. 

9. What’s next?

I’m already into the next phase of this research, delving more deeply into the operations of the New Zealand oil and gas industry and policy development. I’m hoping to partner with several like-minded colleagues on the next leg of the adventure. 

10. What are you reading at the moment?

A seminal article by Peter Benson and Stuart Kirsch in Current Anthropology (August 2010) titled “Capitalism and the Politics of Resignation” was influential in shaping my thinking around oil and gas development in New Zealand.  I’m looking forward to reading Kirsch’s recent book, Mining Capitalism: The Relationship between Corporations and Their Critics (2014). I’ve also enjoyed reading Jeremy Leggett’s diary The Winning of the Carbon War (2016).

Terrence M Loomis holds an MA (1st Hons) in Social Anthropology from Auckland University and a PhD in Economic Anthropology from the University of Adelaide. He has over 15 years research and development consulting experience in the US, Canada, Australia, SE Asia, the Pacific and New Zealand. He was Director of Economic Development for the Mdewakanton Dakota tribe of Prairie Island, Minnesota for four years and holds a certificate in Economic Development Finance from the National Development Council of America. Between 1997-2000 he was Foundation Professor of Development Studies in the School of Māori and Pacific Development at Waikato University, before becoming a social sector policy advisor with the New Zealand government. He is currently an independent researcher, and a Visiting Research Scholar in the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at Victoria University.