A surprise speech made by a high school student at an Environmental Protection Authority event led to an apology letter labelled inappropriate and unnecessary

Forest & Bird has called the EPA’s reaction to a speech a student gave during a stakeholder meeting – which included sending an apology letter to attendees – “totally inappropriate”. 

High school student Sorcha Carr took over a speaking spot given to the often outspoken Greenpeace head Russel Norman with his permission. She gave a passionate speech calling for discussion relating to oil and gas company OMV’s drilling permits to be held publicly.

Forest & Bird’s Lower North Island regional manager Karen Evans was at the event and said she was taken aback by the response to the speech.

“Allan Freeth publicly chastised her [the student] for lack of ‘politeness’ and the inappropriateness of the speech – seemingly more concerned about the offence caused to other ‘invited guests’. From what I witnessed, I believe he was particularly acknowledging a rep from the oil and gas industry, who not only shouted at Sorcha during and after her speech, but immediately stormed out and accosted senior EPA staff to express his outrage at the ‘ridiculousness’, inappropriateness and ‘bad taste’ of her speech.”

The event was described as an annual update where central and local government, industry and community groups were invited to hear what the EPA had been doing and an opportunity for the EPA to understand “what is of concern and interest to our stakeholders”. Norman was a guest speaker. 

Freeth later sent a letter to attendees apologising for “a person’s poor and disrespectful behaviour”. He was referring to either Norman or Carr, not the oil industry representative who spoke over Carr.

His letter says the organisation had invited Norman in good faith “as a gesture of our desire to engage with as wide a range of people involved in the environment to hear diverse and perhaps quite confronting views about the subject”.

He said he expected to hear some hard truths and had not attempted to confine Norman’s speech. On reflection, he said the student’s speech was a publicity stunt for Greenpeace’s “attack” on a current OMV application.

“As I explained to staff earlier today, olive branches, while not endangered, are too few to be squandered.

“We live and learn, and a person’s poor and disrespectful behaviour has not diminished our aspiration to connect with New Zealanders about the work we do.”

Freeth also wrote to Norman saying normally he thanks guest speakers after events but did not intend to this time, calling the speech a “cheap PR stunt”. He said he would have welcomed Carr to speak at a different time or event, where the EPA could have provided a broader perspective of the issue, including “the facts that sit behind them”.

“Sadly, this opportunity has been lost.”

Freeth also pointed out the event was held under Chatham House Rule, where what’s said is not to be attributed to a person. He said the filming and sharing of Carr’s speech points to an organisation “with values and behaviours that we simply do not relate to”.

Norman said he wanted to confront decision-makers and that’s why he gave over much of his speaking spot to Carr. He thinks they expected to be challenged but were surprised by his unorthodox method of giving up his own allotted speaking time.

“It was entirely appropriate that Sorcha, representing the student strike movements for the climate, confronted those decision-makers directly with the consequences of what they were doing.”

Carr said at one point in her speech when she mentioned OMV, she heard someone trying to speak over her but couldn’t hear what was said. This interruption can be heard on video of the speech. The video ends after applause, and Carr said she didn’t hear any shouting.

“After I spoke, Allen then spoke. He made a comment about respecting people who were in the room. At first I thought, ‘Oh, he’s telling the guy off that yelled at me’, but he looked at me and said, ‘Because we have stakeholders here and you’re a guest’.”

She only learnt of the letter apologising for her speech yesterday. She said if she could do it again she would, using the same words and tone. 

“If your feelings are hurt I can’t apologise for that because people’s lives are at stake here.”

She’s disappointed Freeth felt the need to apologise for her speech and thinks it’s unnecessary.

“It just goes to show the lack of understanding that came out of that meeting and they’re so focused on the reaction of business people and stakeholders.”

PEPANZ is the Petroleum Exploration and Production Association of New Zealand and industry body for the oil and gas industry. A spokesperson said none of its representatives at the event “shouted” or stormed out. 

Forest & Bird is so shocked by the EPA’s handling of the situation that chief executive Kevin Hague wrote to Freeth expressing his disappointment.

“… your response when you got a ‘hard message’ was totally inappropriate. The hard message was delivered by an 18-year-old who obviously cares deeply about the environment, yet you responded with public chastisement in a way that is patronising and shows a complete lack of understanding of how a very large portion of our society view environmental issues such as climate change.”

Hague pointed out that it seemed Freeth was more concerned for the welfare of the senior oil representative than the student.

“The way in which you have responded to the heartfelt concerns of an 18-year-old activist has diminished your ability to connect with the likes of Forest & Bird. Any reduced engagement from Forest & Bird with the EPA will not be the result of the hard message, it will be from the EPA’s response.”

Newsroom asked the EPA a number of questions relating to the event, and the letter, and received a brief response. The EPA said this would be the “extent of our comment on this matter”.

“The event hosted by the EPA on 31 October was a private function. Dr Freeth routinely follows up events such as this with a thank you letter to guests. 

“Stakeholder and community engagement is a core part of the EPA’s work, and we will continue to work with as diverse a range of New Zealanders as possible to protect our environment and the people who live and work in it.”

Sorcha Carr’s speech is below.

Kia ora, my name is Sorcha Carr, I am a year 13 at Sacred Heart College, Lower Hutt. I am a full time student and climate activist. Sacred Heart College is where I should be right now, celebrating my final week of school with pranks and banter. But instead, here I am, because yet again, the people we have entrusted with our lives and environment have failed to protect me, my brothers and my sisters of Aotearoa.

A historic 3.5 percent of Aotearoa’s population took to the streets last month in protest of the destruction of their futures due to the greed of the few exploiting the many. One of those few is Austrian oil company OMV. A company that is one of just 100 that has caused over 70% of the world’s climate emissions. A company you are right now considering granting the right to drill for new oil in our precious ocean. And despite the call of thousands, you have chosen to make this decision behind closed doors, without any public input. How dare you go behind the backs of every single one of those people who have stood up and marched in the streets, by taking away their voice on a decision that affects their futures, their children and their grandchildren. How dare you even consider granting OMV’s oil drilling permit without giving us a chance to have a say.

Do the voices of Kiwi’s even matter to you! Do you ever stop to think about the children affected by the consequences of this proposed drilling! How can the “Environmental Protection Authority” even consider deciding on a high risk deep water oil drilling proposal without input from the people it will most affect. I have spent many hours this year out on the streets, protesting inaction, betrayal and greed, I have begged for the chance to raise my children in a healthy and clean environment. I have screamed for justice, and yet you sit here in front of me as blind and deaf as everyone else. We’re just asking for one simple thing: Make this application public. We deserve a say.

We have trusted you to protect us and Papatuanuku, and by keeping this process private, you have failed us, you have failed me. Oil drilling has no place in Aotearoa. It threatens entire ecosystems, and the fruits of such labour threatens the future of the millions of children in New Zealand and around the world. I want you all to stop and think for a minute about what impacts more oil and gas would have on our already fragile climate. How much more oil and gas will we burn before it is too late? And what happens if OMV keeps finding more and more? Are you going to sit back and allow them to exploit the environment for profit that has no match to the lives affected?

It is time we stop hiding behind the greed and profit. It is time to stand up and tell the truth. As a democratic society, we deserve to know about this oil drilling application. You have no right to hide from us any longer and continue to make decisions about my future without first asking me how I feel. I’ll tell you how I feel. I am angry, I am betrayed, but most of all I am scared. More scared than I can honestly say. I have a lot of time to think over the climate crisis and what that means to me as an 18 year old in 2019.

And to me, it truly feels like a death sentence, a burden to bear for the rest of my life. That is how I feel. OMV’s plans to drill oil feels like a slap in the face, but what hurts more is your willingness to lie down and let them walk over you and me. What hurts more is your inability to even share what is happening behind closed doors with a country who have expressed

immense desire for climate justice and action. What hurts more is that I even have to be here telling you this, because my efforts for the past 10 months were clearly not enough.

Climate change is my generation’s Nuclear Free moment. That is what Jacinda Ardern said. The only difference here is that we are at the edge of the cliff, and time is running out. If we continue to exploit our planet further, she will retaliate. There are no do overs, no planet B, there is only action, and it must be taken right here, right now. Please, do not let OMV drill for oil off the Otago Coast, do not hide this application from the victims of the climate crisis, and do not sit back and watch us fall over the cliff.

We are at the edge, and we can go one of two ways: back to safety, or right over the edge, falling until we are in over our heads with no way out. The choice is yours. You are holding the lives of everyone today, and for their sake and my own, I hope you care enough to do your job.

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