A judge will hear legal arguments as part of a judicial review of the legality of a permit awarded to the oil company Petrobras to drill in deep water off the East Cape, in the Wellington High Court on June 5 and 6.
The application for the review was submitted on behalf of Te Whanau a Apanui and Greenpeace New Zealand.
The two parties are seeking that Petrobras’ permit be quashed, on the basis that the Government did not properly consider the environment (including the potential environmental damage that could be caused by the exploration Petrobras plans to carry out), New Zealand’s international obligations, or the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, when it awarded the permit in 2010.
The permit is also being challenged on the basis that the Government did not adequately consult with Te Whanau a Apanui – whose rohe extends along the coastline of the East Cape – before it granted the permit.
Petrobras carried out a seismic survey in the permit area in 2011. This was the subject of protests by members of the Stop Deep Sea Oil Flotilla, of which Te Whanau a Apanui and Greenpeace were a part.
“The New Zealand Government’s permitting process around oil and gas drilling is among the weakest that I’ve ever seen,” says Rick Steiner, an independent consultant, and oil industry expert, based in Anchorage, Alaska
Steiner gave evidence in an affidavit that most well blowouts occur during the exploration phase, which is what Petrobras is currently engaged in. The Deepwater Horizon, which exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, was an exploratory well.
"Astonishingly, on some matters, such as the carrying out of environmental impact assessments, New Zealand is even worse than Nigeria," Steiner says.
The Minister did not require an EIA to be carried out before oil drilling permits were granted.
“It seems that New Zealand’s Government has a dangerous laissez faire attitude to deep sea oil, that you would not see any longer in the United States or Europe. And that surprises me for a country that prides itself on its clean green reputation," Steiner says.
"Even though drilling in the United States is more tightly controlled than almost anywhere else, the Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon oil disaster was still able to occur,” says Steiner.
Te Whanau a Apanui’s Dayle Takitimu warns that the Rena oil disaster showed that deep sea drilling could easily create a disaster.
“The Rena showed that oil spills can’t be contained, if they occur in the open sea,” says Takitimu.
"We have a sacred responsibility to protect and preserve our natural environment and the Government has a duty under the Treaty of Waitangi to work alongside us to achieve this. But because the Government is refusing to work with us over deep sea oil; it is putting our communities and the marine environment at risk,” she says.
After the Deepwater Horizon disaster, almost 230,000 square kilometres of ocean – an area twice the size of the North Island – was closed to fishing. Petrobras intends to drill in waters up to twice as deep as those the Deepwater Horizon was operating in.
The Exclusive Economic Zone legislation currently before the New Zealand Parliament, is widely believed to have been intended to address the flaws that were pointed out to the Government after the Petrobras permit was awarded.
“As drafted, this legislation will not require the Government to protect the ocean, as international law requires, and its provisions on public consultation and participation are particularly weak. For instance, interested parties will not be able to challenge decisions in the Environment Court, but only challenge points of law, not facts, in the High Court,” says Vanessa Atkinson, Greenpeace New Zealand Climate Campaigner.
"Greenpeace does not believe that deep sea oil exploration can ever be safe. If we are to prevent catastrophic, runaway climate change, the oil industry must not be allowed to open up its last, extreme frontiers, either in the Arctic, or in the deep waters off New Zealand," Atkinson says.