Gordon Campbell on oil drilling permits, and Iris Dement

Yesterday, the government unveiled the latest round of oil permits. Five of them are located onshore in Taranaki and the East Coast, but five are located offshore, in the Reinga-Northland, Taranaki, and Great South Canterbury Basins. One new entrant in the market is the Norwegian state oil company Statoil. In 2011, Statoil came under a good deal of criticism fropm the Norwegian regulators for its lack of preparedness in dealing with an oil spill in its North Sea operations:

Statoil operates five oil fields on Haltenbanken and has come under new harsh criticism, reports newspaper Aftenposten…The Klif inspectors [ie, from Norway’s Climate and Pollution Agency] claim that Statoil couldn’t document that its preparedness for acute pollution of Haltenbanken was in compliance with current regulations….Haltenbanken encompasses the Kristin, Åsgard, Heidrun, Norne and Njord fields where Statoil is the operator. Statoil is said to have a “functioning preparedness tied to activities on Haltenbanken” but couldn’t document whether it has the dimensions needed to tackle acute pollution. “We haven’t received documentation that Statoil can handle a major oil spill at Haltenbanken,” [Klif director Ellen] Hambro said. “We expect that a company like Statoil has better control than this.”

In March 2012, a British investment fund also withdrew its investment in Statoil on ethical grounds, due to the company’s development of an oil sands project in Canada. Clearly, more needs to be known about Statoil’s drilling and exploration plans offshore from Reinga-Northland, and about its preparedness for dealing with the environmental consequences of an oil spill.

As for one of the other major oil companies controversially engaged in offshore drilling around New Zealand…. Anadarko has just gone back to court in the US to challenge the prior court ruling that found it jointly liable ( with BP) for the consequences of the fatal 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Andarko’s contention – in effect – is that the oil in question moved through the well, but was not discharged by it in a fashion for which BP and Anadarko are liable, under the appropriate reading of the Clean Water Act. They are unlikely to prevail, according to US legal observers, one of whom has described Anadarko’s action as bordering on the frivolous. But the fact the legal action has been mounted at all provides a chilling insight into the legal ducking and diving that we could expect to encounter from Anadarko if any significant discharge occurred around our shores, as a result of the company’s activities. Clearly, the Key government is playing with fire when it comes to offshore oil drilling. It seems to be operating with a “drill, cross your fingers, and hope” policy.

Iris Dement on RNZ tomorrow
As my elder daughter pointed out to me, Greg Brown and Iris Dement seem to approach the craft of songwriting from different ends of the spectrum. Since 1980, Brown has been writing songs about the the external circumstances of boomer experience. He’s written songs about the joys and anxieties of early parenthood (e.g. “Say a Little Prayer” “Daughters”) guilty consumerism (e.g. “Who’d A Thunk It”) small town decay (e.g. “ Our Little Town,” “Canned Goods”) right on up to the onset of emotional isolation and physical decrepitude (e.g. “ Just My Myself,” “Stiff Old Bones”.) The externals get observed with such clarity in a Greg Brown song that the audience routinely feels a flash of amused personal recognition. Brown works from the outside, inwards.

His wife, Iris Dement, works in exactly the opposite fashion, from the inside out. Her work may be steeped in the traditions and consolations of country music but in her hands, these are not museum items lovingly presented. They’re as raw as when they were first written. Onstage, she seems so immersed in her songs, that she works her way outwards to the audience, who need to meet her half way. As she re-surfaces at the end of each song, Dement makes an unnerving sweep of eye contact with every sector of her audience. It was like being at church, my daughter said, and not just because Dement was performing in an old, de-sanctified one. This week, Dement and Brown did two sold out shows in Wellington, bankrolled by the economist/philanthropist Gareth Morgan. Tomorrow, Dement will be interviewed on RNZ by Kim Hill. Don’t miss it. There’s also a three part interview with her here, from 2012.

Why am I mentioning Iris Dement in what is ostensibly a political column ? One, because she is a great artist who deserves to be as widely known as possible. So far, the mass public probably know of her mainly via the soundtrack to the Coen brothers film True Grit – in which she sang a version of the hymn “ Leaning On The Everlasting Arms” over the credits. A while ago, I wrote a history of that hymn on Werewolf, in collaboration with the Athens, Georgia singer, writer and film-maker Jim White, and called it “ When Good Hymns Are Sung By Bad People.” The story of the hymn is here.

Dement has written at least one major overtly political song – 1995’s raging “Living in the Wasteland Of the Free” – but as she explained in the interview linked above, the reception to that song left her feeling uncomfortable. In her life, music has commonly been used to play a therapeutic role – as self release and self-discovery – and that song had such an accusatory tone, although one that reflected her own political feelings at the time. In similar vein in Wellington, she back-announced her greatest song – “Easy’s Getting Harder Every Day” – with the comment that the song was a downer, but maybe it might help people to feel their own life wasn’t so bad, after all. Go back almost 20 years and you find her telling the writer Nicholas Dawidoff almost exactly the same thing : “ For me, I’m drawn to that music because its honest. Its written to help people, to give them a little courage to get through. For a lot of people, and for my family, that’s all they were trying to do was get through life, and those songs helped a lot.” Go even further back – all the way back to the 1880s, and you discover that the evangelist Anthony J. Showalter wrote “ Leaning On the Everlasting Arms” for exactly the same compassionate reasons:

[He] hailed from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, and…felt inspired to write the hymn after trying to console two former students in South Carolina, whose wives had recently died. To ease their pain, Showalter cited to them Deuteronomy 33:27: “The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms: and He shall thrust out the enemy from before thee; and shall say, Destroy them.” [The idea of setting those sentiments to music came to him soon afterwards.]

Which raises a final political point: what are the survival chances of regional music born of hardship and social isolation, in the age of cultural globalisation? It seems a relevant concern. Dement turns 53 next month, and would be wary of ending up as any kind of cultural relic. It is a problem that faces even young Southern performers like Brittany Howard, and her band Alabama Shakes. How much more freight can these old musical forms continue to bear? For now thankfully, the answer is still “enough” – at least in the hands of someone like Iris Dement.