by Peter Evans


Over the past couple of years I have undertaken an extensive photographic study, which documents the current oil and natural gas industry landscape of New Zealand. The discovery and wide use of oil and natural gas, which are essentially trapped remnants of ancient life forms, has transformed human society, enabling the insatiable growth of the industrialized world and has made a globalized society possible. It has become common knowledge that today for every three barrels of oil we consume, only one new barrel is discovered. Meanwhile the demand for oil and gas continues to grow (Strahan, 2007). This is an unsustainable practice in the long-term and has led many to believe that we are at the peak of oil production, and that given oil is a finite resource, global oil reserves are approaching an age of terminal decline. This raises critical issues for the future of the economy, transportation and food production worldwide.

Exploration for oil in New Zealand, particularly in the offshore exclusive economic zone is likely to occur more frequently and with greater vigor over the coming years despite highly predictable opposition. New Zealand is relatively unexplored on an International scale and given that the days of easily extracted oil are well and truly over, oil companies are set to undertake ventures in more difficult regions to quench our ever growing thirst for oil and gas. Drilling in Antarctica, offshore deep sea drilling, and negotiating notoriously difficult tar sands in Alberta, Canada are signs that it is becoming increasingly difficult to acquire the once free flowing fuels. This all makes New Zealand, both on and off shore a much more lucrative and attractive prospect.

New Zealand is a mass of land that protrudes above sea level from an otherwise submerged continent known as Tasmantis or Zealandia, hence the title of this project. Zealandia is known to contain large amounts of oil and natural gas, some of which is already being exploited in the Taranaki region. Exploration in other areas of Zealandia are currently underway, with more oil and gas expected to be discovered.

The oil industry is a hot topic in New Zealand at the moment, and presents highly political, economic and environmental issues, which will unfold over the coming years. My intent in photographing the oil and gas industry in New Zealand is certainly not to attack the industry, which would be hypocritical as I like all other New Zealanders are dependent upon the industry within the landscape. In fact on the contrary, I would like to openly thank those in the industry for giving me privileged access to in many cases restricted sites that have made this exhibition possible. I personally burnt thousands of dollars in fossil fuels, travelling around New Zealand with the purpose of photographing the industry.

Before I introduce this project – Zealandia: Views from the Peak? I find it appropriate to first of all outline some of the fundamental issues and thought processes that have led me to undertake a photographic study of the oil industry in New Zealand. I do not intend for the photographs that comprise this exhibition to be an illustration of the issues raised over the next several pages, however I think it is useful for the viewer to understand my inner concerns of a global nature to fully appreciate my more localised creative ambition.

In her highly regarded publication ‘A World History of Photography’ Naomi Rosenblum summarizes the development and integration of the medium of photography from a small pocket of specialists towards a more than accommodating wider public:

“The photograph was the ultimate response to a social and cultural appetite for a more accurate and real-looking representation of reality, a need that had its origins in the Renaissance…Realistic depiction in the visual arts was stimulated and assisted also by the climate of scientific enquiry that had emerged in the late 16th Century and was supported by the Middle Class during the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th Century…Industrialization and the spread of education mandated a need for greater amounts of comprehensive pictorial material encompassing a broader range of subjects – a necessity to which only the camera image was able to respond”.

- Rosenblum

The modern photographic process was and still is an evolutionary medium that has satiated the need for the human enterprise to produce and consume imagery on an increasingly larger scale. It acts as both the recorder and a result of industrialization.

The discovery and application of coal as an energy source fueled the Industrial Revolution. After witnessing mass deforestation in Europe between 400AD and 1600AD, Europeans reluctantly turned to coal, a filthy material, out of necessity for energy in the way of heat. Coal proved to be incredibly useful. Although it was dirty, the heat provided by coking coal was so intense it enabled smelting for iron and steel production, beginning in England in the 17th Century. This development would pave way for the Industrial Revolution.

Coal was used to manufacture glass, bricks, tiles, salt (through evaporation), refining sugar and brewing beer. In the course of 100 years, coal had transformed much of the world. New forms of production, new inventions and discoveries, new patterns of work, intensified colonialism and a new geopolitical balance of power were all due to coal (Heinberg, 2005).

Coal may well have been the energy source central to the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, but it has predominantly been the energy from oil and natural gas that has sustained industrialized societies insatiable appetite for continuous growth, characterized by a technologically advanced, image-saturated, globalized world.

All growth requires energy. Whether it is a plant, animal, human being, the economy or even society at large – all levels of growth are determined by inputs of available energy.

“In 1859 the human race discovered a huge treasure chest in its basement. This was oil and gas, a fantastically cheap and easily available source of energy. We did, or at least some of us did what anybody does who discovers a treasure in the basement, live it up, and we have been spending this treasure with great enjoyment”.

- Boulding

To outline the origins of fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) I will give a brief account acutely described by Michael Mitchell in an essay for the publication of ‘Oil’ by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky:

“For millions of years, tiny marine life forms lived by converting the energy of the sun into molecules of carbohydrates such as sugars. At the end of their life cycles their bodies fell by the uncountable trillions to the bottom of ancient seas where with time, both heat and pressure converted the compounds into oil. It appears that through this process the remains of plants became coal while zooplanktons became the liquid ‘hydrocarbons’ we call crude oil. Both preserve the energy of ancient sunlight, that’s why they’re called fossil fuels. Until about 500 years ago the carbon cycle was in equilibrium – every molecule of carbon dioxide emitted by decaying life and human activity was absorbed by forests and the sea. However, once people began to exploit fossil fuels the release of carbon began to exceed the uptake of the global cycle. The system is finite. Because of fossil fuel consumption, today’s carbon production is roughly double the global systems capacity for capture and release. Fewer and smaller forests mean more heat retention. Hotter climes mean less snow and ice, which means less reflected solar energy, which in turn means more heat. The world has fallen out of balance. In the short term the exploitation of fossil stores of sunlight created enormous benefit. It made possible the mechanization of manufacture that we call the industrial revolution…enormous wealth resulted”.

- Mitchell (2009)

Fossil fuels; oil, coal and natural gas are a finite resource because they have taken millions of years to develop into a useful form of energy; a source of energy that we consume faster than the process takes to regenerate. According to the International Energy Agency, currently fossil fuels provide more than 80% of the world’s energy! (IEA, 2012) Today we use oil for everything. The food we buy from supermarkets has travelled from all over the world thanks to transportation, it has been grown using fertilisers and pesticides, which are made from oil and natural gas. Our clothes, whether cotton, nylon or polyester are manufactured using, and some even made directly from petroleum products. Our modern medical system is oil dependent for transport and high tech equipment. Computers and microchips are made from petroleum products and use even more in the manufacturing process. All plastics are made from oil. Our roads, buildings and cities have been built thanks to the abundant, cheap supply of fossil fuels. Even alternative sources of energy including wind turbines, solar panels, and nuclear power plants demand oils energy for materials, assembly and maintenance. Mining and refining other natural resources such as silver, copper, aluminium and platinum used in electrical devices including home ware is dependant upon oil or natural gas driven machinery. Former US President George W. Bush declared in a State of the Union address in January 2006 quite bluntly that ‘America is addicted to oil’ (Bush, 2006). Yet it isn’t only America, it is the entire modern, industrial, technological world. It is the energy source of our civilization.

Peak Oil

Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline.

In 1956 an expert petroleum geologist called Marion King Hubbert (October 5, 1903 – October 11, 1989) who was working for Shell Oil at the research lab in Houston, Texas, noted that for any geographical area, whether it be an individual oilfield or the entire planet as whole, the rate of petroleum production would resemble a bell shaped curve.

Fig.1 Peak Oil Production (two estimates).

Production rises slowly, and then rapidly increases before slowing to a ‘peak’ or a ‘plateau’ in production (when that given geographical area produces the most it ever has and ever will produce) and then inevitably declines no matter how much effort is put in as the finite resource becomes exhausted. It is the peak in production that is known as ‘Hubberts Peak’ (see Fig. 1). Those in the oil industry now almost universally accept this observation. Whilst various fields and regions may have different shaped curves of production dependent on specific discoveries and production observations unique to individual sites, it is common oil industry knowledge that all wells drilled have a beginning, a peak and an end and that they must then move on to another well.

Fig.2 US Oil Production and M.K Hubberts prediction

Hubbert correctly predicted that U.S oil production would peak in 1970. When 1970 rolled around he was virtually laughed out of his profession for making such a ridiculous prediction as at that time the U.S were producing the most oil they ever had, Ironically this was the year in which the US oil production peaked and has been in terminal decline ever since (see Fig. 2, note: the red dotted line indicates 1956, the year Hubbert made this prediction).

To get this graph, Hubbert made an educated estimation based on the discoveries of oil reserves, which he noticed followed a similar, earlier bell shaped curve to production. The discovery of US oil reserves had peaked and declined by the 1930s. Hubbert took the data of past discoveries and included current proven reserves as well as the estimated future discoveries based on the trends of current and past discoveries to make his future prediction.

Hubbert used the same method to predict the peak in global oil production. Having noted that global oil discoveries peaked and have been in continuous decline since the late 1960s, In 1976 Hubbert declared that world crude oil production would peak in 1995. He did also mention that the oil crisis of the 1970s due to the OPEC oil embargo might offset the peak about 10 to 15 years to around 2005 to 2010.

Fig.3 Epoch of fossil-fuel exploitation in human history (10,000 year timespan). Source: M.K Hubbert. Energy from fossil fuels, 1949

One of Hubberts favourite graphs was called ‘fossil fuels in human history’ (see Fig. 3). In this graph, Hubbert reveals gross global fossil fuel exploitation in a time span of 5000 years ago, to the present (1976), to 5000 years into the future. In this humbling sketch Hubbert places the human species reliance on fossils fuels in a historical context:

“So what this shows is that this largely monumental like spike here is the episode of fossil fuels; coal, oil and natural gas and every other kind of fossil fuel in human history. It’s the most disturbing thing that’s ever happened to the human species, it’s responsible for our technological society and in terms of human history, it’s a very brief epoch”.

- Hubbert (1976)


Fig.4 World Oil Production, 1900 - 2009. Source: Energy Information Administration (EIA).

The graph in Fig. 4 shows world oil production from 1900 (around the time when oil was becoming general use) to today. There is no absolute knowledge of when the peak will or has occurred until hindsight, as nobody knows exactly how much oil there is. Dr Colin Campbell a former chief geologist and vice president at a string of oil majors including BP, Shell, Fina, Exxon and ChevronTexaco says that the peak of regular oil – the cheap and easy stuff has already come and gone in 2005. Kenneth Deffreyes a geologist who worked with Hubbert suggests the peak is occurring now. The US Geological Survey, who is traditionally known to have very optimistic views on this matter, places the peak at 2036. The UK government has said the peak in global oil production will occur around 2030. The International Energy Agency says production of conventional crude oil peaked in 2006. In 2006 Helen Clark, then Prime Minister of New Zealand said in answer to a question regarding the fuel price that:

“It’s causing concern for every country because everyone’s on the receiving end of the same phenomenon which is oil prices are very high because we’re probably not too far short from peak production if we’re not already there”.

- Clark (2006)

Whether oil production will peak is no longer a debate, the question, if it hasn’t occurred already, is when.

Fig.5 World Population 1000AD - 2010AD. Source: US Census Bureau International Data Base

Fig. 5 shows human population growth by the billions since 1000AD. The world population has been growing continuously since the end of the Black Death around 1400, and today there are just over seven billion human beings living on planet Earth (October 2012).

Fig.6 World Population and Oil Production 1000-2010. Source: See Figures 4 & 5.

When we impose the oil production graph on top (Fig. 6), we begin to see a pattern emerge. The human population has grown with the production of oil. This is no coincidence. Cheap oil has not only been used to fuel industry, manufacture and transportation, but also our food. Physicist Dr. Albert Bartlett once called modern agriculture “the use of land to turn petroleum into food” (Bartlett, 1978). 75 to 95% of the increase in food production during the post WWII ‘green revolution’ is attributed not to miracle seeds but to the inputs derived from fossil fuels. Mechanical cultivation, fertilisers, pesticides, diesel powered irrigation, the growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, refrigeration and global distribution of vast quantities of food to feed billions of hungry people (not to mention the cooking, and disposal) is enabled by the use of fossil fuels. Oil has helped the population boom along. It took all of human history for the population to reach one billion, which it did around 1800. In little over a century there were two billion in 1930. The third billion was added in just 30 years in 1960, the fourth billionth was added only 15 years later in 1975. Another billion made 5 in 1987. There were 6 billion of us by the year 2000 and today there are just over 7 billion human beings living on planet Earth.

Let us now consider economic growth on a third graph (Fig. 7). The gross domestic product (GDP) is a basic measure of a country's overall economic output. This graph shows world GDP in millions of Geary Khamis dollars since 1820 – 2010. The Geary Khamis dollar is a hypothetical unit of currency also known as the international dollar. It is used to accurately compare GDP between nations without the confusion of currency exchange rates.

Fig.7 Total World GDP 1820-2010AD. Source: Angus Maddison & US Census Bureau International Data Base

When we look at all three (oil production, population and economic growth) together we can again see massive similarities. Economic growth (GDP) has grown in tandem, exponentially as both oil production and population increases. Of course the energy provided by fossil fuels and the labour of ever reproducing human beings has enabled such a rapid increase in economic growth. What I find not only fascinating but also somewhat disturbing about these graphs is all of this exponential growth has only occurred over the last 200 years, since the widespread use of fossil fuels – the energy source of our civilization.

A video on YouTube titled ‘Arithmetic, Population, and Energy’ easily searched and aptly tagged “The Most Important Video You’ll Ever See” is of a modest lecture in Colorado by Professor Albert Bartlett who emphatically states, “The greatest short-coming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function”. - Bartlett (2002)

Our global economy expects and demands continuous growth. Over the past 200 years this growth has been fuelled by an ever-increasing supply of energy in the form of fossil fuels. Whether global oil peaks and declines tomorrow, next year, next decade or even next century, if it hasn’t occurred already, the net energy available from these fossil stores of sunlight will no longer be able to sustain a globalized economy. To date no discovery of any form of energy can replace this source from which we have built our technological world, as we know it. It is with great thanks to fossil fuels that we have experienced a growth-based economy. It is indeed all we have ever known. Yet without these energy inputs, future generations if not within our own lifetime will face a decline-based economy.

Our monetary system is a man-made concept that places an arbitrary value upon all aspects of the natural world. Marion King Hubbert precisely outlined the current predicament thus:

“The worlds present industrial civilization is handicapped by the co-existence of two universal, overlapping, and incompatible intellectual systems:

1. the accumulated knowledge of the last four centuries of the properties and inter-relationships of matter and energy: and

2. the associated monetary culture which has evolved from folkways of pre-historic origin.

The first of these two systems has been responsible for the spectacular rise, principally during the last two centuries, of the present industrial system and is essential for its continuance. The second, an inheritance from the pre-scientific past, operates by rules of its own having little in common with those of the matter-energy system upon which it is superimposed. Despite their inherent incompatibilities, these two systems during the last two centuries have had one fundamental characteristic in common, namely exponential growth, which has made a reasonably stable existence possible. But, for various reasons, it is impossible for the matter-energy system to sustain exponential growth for more than a few tens of doublings, and this phase is by now almost over. The monetary system has no such constraints, and, accordingly to one of its most fundamental rules, it must continue to grow by compound interest.”

- Hubbert (1981)

Without oil and natural gas our modern industrialized society would never have been possible, this much is clear. Almost every aspect of my comfortable lifestyle is dependent upon the industry from when I brush my teeth in the morning until switching off the light at night, and almost every other facet of my middle class privilege in between. Indeed I like several billion others on Earth may not even be alive were it not for the widespread, versatile, energy dense properties of fossil fuels. It is this apparent conflict between what is beneficial for us on one level yet problematic for us and the wider environment on another that I am interested in. The modern photographic process is entirely oil dependent. I am therefore very conscious of the relationship between myself, the photographic process and the oil industry, and the cultural sphere that encompasses the entirety of this project. The purpose of this exhibition is to present a body of work that documents the current oil and natural gas landscape in New Zealand in a fine art context for contemporary contemplation and historical reference.

I have an admiration for early New Zealand photographers such as Alfred Burton who documented a landscape in the midst of great change. As British colonialism gathered frantic pace in its imperial dominance of much of the globe, in challenging times these early photographers documented the rise of industrial influence. Over a century later the world is a significantly different place to the one those early pioneers photographed. The trees have been felled and replaced with complex industrial structures and suburban subdivisions. The landscape is awash with roads loomed over by giant billboards force-feeding us artificial desires for material goods we don’t need. Consumerism is rife, it is a product of industrialized society and cheap petroleum products have fuelled it all. This landscape is also worthy of documentation, perhaps as a conclusion to the work that photographers like Burton began.

Whilst experts bicker about the specifics of looming dates of the peak in world oil production, globally, government policies are considerably ignorant to the foreseeable issues that will arise, at least in terms of making the information general public knowledge. Largely because they don’t want to be bearers of bad news, this would ultimately negate any chance of re-election. But also because they are propped up by financial backers who are determined to protect profits and are negligent to the paradigm shift that is needed to move away from an economic ideology that ignores the fundamental basic insight that unlimited, continuous growth in a world of finite resources is physically impossible.


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Burtynsky, E., and Michael M. Burtynsky: Oil. Göttingen: Steidl, 2009. p.171.

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copyright © Peter Evans 2013