New Zealand to abandon clean, green image for oil and gas dollar?

Regulations proposed by New Zealand government would make way for increased mineral exploration in marine sanctuaries.New Zealand’s rush to emulate Australia and exploit its offshore oil and gas resources isn’t good news for whales and dolphins.

Perhaps looking jealously across the Tasman Sea at how Australia’s resources boom has helped sustain the country in the face of a global economic crisis, New Zealand is considering abandoning its ‘clean, green’ image and welcoming offshore oil and gas with open arms.

The New Zealand Parliament is currently considering a new law to govern what activities can take place in its Exclusive Economic Zone – the seas off the coast of New Zealand from beyond its territorial sea boundary at 12 nautical miles out to the limit of New Zealand’s control at 200 nautical miles.

To clarify its plans the New Zealand Government recently released draft regulations that would accompany the new law, explaining what activities can and cannot take place in New Zealand waters and how these will be assessed.

The regulations specify what activities will be permitted (allowed to go ahead without further assessment), what activities will be discretionary (need an environmental assessment on a case by case basis) and what activities will be prohibited … which it seems will be none.

That’s right, nothing is off limits.

Not even severely destructive activities like sea bed mining, or oil and gas drilling in extremely deep and icy waters, where no-one has yet demonstrated it would be possible to contain a disastrous spill.

Seabed mining involves essentially vast open cut mines on the sea bed floor, which to be profitable would need to involve large areas being mined over decades. The New Zealand Government’s own expert report highlights how, in all cases, the seafloor and all its life will be severely impacted and for some activities, probably close to 100% of seabed life will be killed during the mining process. The expert report also highlights how, for many of the activities, there are insufficient details available to determine conditions that could or should be applied and that the technology is as yet unproven.

A similar situation applies to deep sea oil and gas exploration. There is as yet no known or proven way to deal with catastrophic spills in deep water, as witnessed by the carnage that followed the well blow out in BP’s Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico.

That well was at a depth of 1,500 metres and resulted in 5 million barrels of oil leaking for 3 months, with clean-up costs estimated to be US$40 Billion. Many of the proposed sites for oil and gas exploration in New Zealand waters are well in excess of 1,500m depth with some as deep as 3,000m.

If a similar event were to happen in New Zealand, the impact upon New Zealand's marine environment, coastal communities and ‘clean, green’ reputation would be catastrophic.

Even worse news for marine life, particularly whales and dolphins, is that deafening seismic surveys, which can force animals to flee critical feeding, breeding and calving habitat, mask communication needed to find mates, socialise, find prey and avoid predators and can even cause permanent damage to hearing, will be a ‘permitted’ activity.

This means that as long as oil and gas companies follow a proposed new code, seismic surveys can go ahead without any further need for an assessment of the harm they could do to the marine environment.

The draft regulations only included a summary of this proposed new code that companies will rely upon, and while it contained some encouraging signs, without seeing the final code it is impossible to tell what impact it will have.

Bearing in mind the deficiencies the International Fund for Animal Welfare highlighted in the Australian guidelines on seismic surveys in our report Australia’s last great whale haven, we’re not optimistic.

Worse still, oil and gas exploration will be allowed inside marine mammal sanctuaries – the very places that are supposed to be a permanent refuge for these animals and protect critical feeding, breeding and calving habitat.

This is an extremely worrying development and communities in New Zealand that depend on whale watching are already voicing their concerns about the effects of seismic surveys and offshore oil and gas development.

In many ways, these developments come as no surprise.

The proposed new law expressly favours economic development over environmental protection, with the original draft suggesting consent for activities could be granted “if the activity’s contribution to New Zealand’s economic development outweighs the activity’s adverse effects on the environment.”

Sadly the draft regulations to go alongside the bill fail to account for long term environmental harm, with no threshold set which would guarantee a minimum degree of environmental protection.

These proposed changes look to be just another note in mankind’s sorry history of prioritising short-term economic gain over environmental protection. With so many lessons from history of our failure to address long-term environmental concerns these new laws were an opportunity to turn the tide, but it appears the lure of the almighty oil and gas dollar is too strong.

At time when New Zealand is getting a ticking off for failing to protect the last 55 Maui’s dolphins remaining on the planet, the last thing New Zealand’s whales and dolphins need is to face the vast range of threats the oil and gas industry brings.

--MC

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