Thursday, June 2, 2011

Licence to drill

At first sight it looks like good news for the oceans around New Zealand: Nick Smith announces legislation that will make the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) responsible for approving and monitoring drilling activities offshore.

The new law, which Smith wants to take effect on 1 July 2012, will cover not only the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends from 12 to 200 kilometres offshore, but the extended continental shelf beyond that.

This, he says, will ensure we have robust laws in place to protect the marine environment, and what’s not to like about that?—given the concern over Petrobras’s exploration of the seabed off the East Cape, which triggered serious protest action.

Unpacking Smith’s statement, however, it’s not too hard to argue that, far from putting in place ‘robust laws’ to protect the environment, this move will make it even easier for oil companies to do precisely what they want in the waters off New Zealand.

Smith gives the game away, in fact, when he acknowledges that the existing guidelines on offshore drilling are ‘unenforceable.’ Meaning, the Government’s currently on shaky ground—or rough water—when it seeks to defend what the likes of Petrobras are up to. It might even find that, if taken to court, it could not defend such activity. It needs to be able to tell protesters (and voters) that what the drillers are doing is legal.

How nice it would be to believe that no ocean will be harmed in the implementing of this law. But so much depends on the body responsible for administering it, the EPA, and the very reason this government created the EPA in the first place was to give ‘major resource consent applicants’ a fast-track way of bypassing the Resource Management Act—an act considered by National to be so obstructive to developers that it passed a law specifically aimed at ‘simplifying and streamlining’ it. It was under his act that the EPA was established.

Some protecting of the environment will undoubtedly take place under the new authority’s aegis, but it exists above all to make straight and quick the way of those wishing to exploit the environment for economic ends. As outlined by Smith, it will be charged with a ‘general duty to avoid, remedy or mitigate adverse environmental effects,’ a provision you could drive a fifty-foot pipeline through. The EPA is National’s way of saying to developers and drillers: ‘No need to queue over there and then sit through months of boring old consent hearings; just step this way and we’ll have you processed, approved and on your way in no time.’

And if you still prefer to think it will be a nice neutral independent body not beholden to the Government or pro-development lobbies, just look at its board membership, announced today: not one of the eight comes from a purely ecological perspective, and no one with a genuine track record in environmental protection is represented—unless you want to count Richard Woods, a former diplomat who was parked at the head of the Environmental Resource Management Authority after running the SIS for a few years.

Most of the members have business backgrounds; and the chair of the new board is that noted greenie, former Wellington mayor Kerry Prendergast.

The only thing green about this board—which, by the way, is also charged with managing the Emissions Trading Scheme—will be the green light it gives the world’s oil and gas companies to set up their rigs within spilling distance of New Zealand.

As Smith helpfully reminds us, ‘This area of ocean, 20 times New Zealand's land area, offers significant economic opportunities.’ Believe it. The legislation is designed to expedite, not hinder or cramp, those ‘opportunities.’ Already the managing director of one firm (Chatham Rock Phosphate) has said it will help them explore for phosphate on the Chatham Island rise. This bill is a licence to drill.


Robin Johnson's Economics Web Page said...

I agree. Smith's proposal will just make it easier for Petrobas to get insurance.

stephen said...

I have every confidence that "Environmental Protection Authority" will turn out to be the misnomer of the century.