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Environmental legislation to govern offshore mineral exploration gains mixed reaction

News the government has introduced new environmental legislation governing offshore mineral exploration and extraction in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and extended continental shelf (ECS) has failed to find favour with some groups, while others have said it provides needed certainty over the development of ocean resources. 

In making the announcement, environment minister Nick Smith said the legislation put in place a “robust system of environmental controls” for the unregulated seabed area that is 20 times that of New Zealand’s landmass. 

“This is about ensuring that New Zealand is environmentally responsible in taking up the significant economic opportunities in our EEZ and ECS,” he said.

The Bill makes the new Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) responsible for consenting, monitoring and enforcement of activities that impact on the environment like petroleum exploration, seabed mining, deepwater aquaculture and marine energy development. It requires public consultation on regulations and consents and enables activities to be classified as permitted, discretionary or prohibited. The new law is intended to come into effect on 1 July 2012. 

Strateera, the industry group representing New Zealand's natural resources sector, is supportive of the legislation, with chief executive Chris Baker saying it’s “logical to extend the best features of resource management law on land into the marine environment”. 

“A consistent approach to assessing, case by case, the effects of proposals to develop New Zealand’s rich resources in the EEZ and ECS, and how these would be managed, and consenting on this basis is eminently sensible,” he added. 

But the Green Party has retorted by saying New Zealand needs clean, green jobs, not risky deepwater drilling that will exacerbate climate change. 

Spokesperson on resource management David Clendon described drilling as “risky” and “not a sustainable economic strategy”. 

“The recent protests of Petrobras’s deepwater exploration off the East Cape, and the huge protests of mining in our national parks last year, show that many New Zealanders want a smart green economy, not one based on fossil fuel and mineral extraction,” he said. 

Meanwhile WWF New Zealand has responded to the news ever so slightly more positively. 

WWF New Zealand marine advocate Bob Zuur said that while the EEZ Bill was an improvement on current “mishmash of laws”, it still falls short of what’s needed to protect our oceans. 

‘The Bill proposes to tack on environmental conditions to development permits in the absence of any considered assessment of what areas should be protected or developed. 

"To safeguard our seas, we need to protect a third of our oceans in marine reserves. Some areas, such as the waters around the Kermadecs Islands to the north-east of Auckland, are so important for wildlife they should never be exploited. We need to protect globally significant areas, the Kermadecs are a good place to start." 

He said that less than  one percent of our oceans are currently protected in marine reserves and that a Colmar Brunton opinion poll recently commissioned by WWF found on average, New Zealanders believed about a third of the ocean should be protected fully in marine reserves.