Do Oil, Gas and Mining Gazump Marine Protection?

Geoff SimmonsEnvironment

The Government’s consultation on protecting our ocean has taken place in the shadow of the oil, gas and mining industry. A number of Government proposals on marine protection point to the undue influence of this industry, and have turned the consultation into a sham.

We’re all familiar with protecting our land – some 30% of our land mass is managed by DOC – albeit mostly the leftover bits we can’t farm. However, land is actually only 5% of the territory under New Zealand’s control – the other 95% is ocean; made up of our territorial sea (out 12 nautical miles), Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ – out 200 nautical miles) and parts of the continental shelf that extend beyond that.

Our EEZ contains a lot of special wildlife that needs protecting – endangered sea lions, unique sea birds, and ancient bubblegum corals – even blue whales migrate through. We have an international obligation to create a representative network of protected areas throughout our whole marine space including the EEZ.
In the last election campaign, the Government promised legislation to do just that. Such areas would be protected from extractive industries such as fishing, mining, oil and gas.

At some point last year the Government did a U-turn and changed its mind. Documents released under the Official Information Act show that early versions of the consultation document included references to the EEZ, but by June 2015 these had been removed and replaced with only the territorial sea (i.e. within the 12 mile limit rather than the 200 mile one).

Why the change? Certainly it wouldn’t have come from Nick Smith who promised the EEZ would be included. A clue comes from Straterra’s (the mining industry body) claim that too much value was placed on the Benthic Protected Areas (some existing areas in our EEZ where fishers had agreed not to trawl). Presumably they made that assertion because they want to mine there.

The territorial sea is under 3% of our total marine realm. Why would government be satisfied to only protect a fraction of a fraction of our ocean? It defies logic, and clearly breaches our international obligations. It seems this marine protection consultation might actually be about reducing marine protection to allow more mining and drilling.

Without the inclusion of the EEZ, the consultation document doesn’t make any sense. At one point it declares that species-specific sanctuaries “could be designed to protect albatross, great white shark or blue whale feeding or breeding areas”. However, such areas are unlikely to be found within our territorial sea – pointing to another weakening from the current provisions for marine mammal sanctuaries. No wonder officials couldn’t answer any questions at the ‘consultation event’ – they can’t even explain how the Government’s plan will achieve their own stated objectives. It’s all become a very sick joke.

To their credit the Government have protected the entire EEZ around the Kermadec Islands. However, our international obligation is to create a representative network of reserves. The Kermedecs are sub-tropical, they certainly don’t represent our sub-antarctic ecosystems – which we are obliged to protect.

It gets worse. Under the proposals for marine protection, areas under permit for petroleum or mining exploration are exempt from any proposal for marine protection. Existing permit areas make up 16% of the EEZ and 11% of the territorial sea. Furthermore, new permit areas can be established without public involvement.

So not only is most of our ocean off limits for protection, but of the paltry remainder, at least 11% is kept aside solely for the oil, gas and mining industries. This shows that the oil, gas and mining industries really do get top priority.

Apparently the Government wants to send the signal that we are ‘open for business’. Too much conservation might harm that image. Should our endangered sea lions, unique sea birds, and ancient bubblegum corals be “open for business”? We don’t think so.

Lack of knowledge about what’s in our EEZ is no excuse either. If that lack of knowledge doesn’t stop us mining, it shouldn’t stop us protecting.

This approach simply doesn’t make sense for industry or the New Zealand public. It makes sense for all industries that there be a durable network of protected areas throughout our EEZ. As it stands a future government is bound to overturn this sop to the oil, gas and mining industries, which will imperil both the industry’s investments and could open the taxpayer to legal action.

Despite the slump in oil prices and the failure of two seabed mining proposals, the Government seems determined to have more drilling, digging and pumping happening in our oceans. We need to protect a representative sample of our EEZ as insurance against some of that going horribly wrong.


The Ministry for the Environment is consulting on the proposals for marine protection:

Submissions close 5pm Friday 11 March. To make it easy to have your say we have created a form for you below, we encourage you to change the text within it before you submit to reflect your own views.

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Do Oil, Gas and Mining Gazump Marine Protection? was last modified: March 8th, 2016 by Geoff Simmons
About the Author

Geoff Simmons

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Geoff Simmons is an economist working for the Morgan Foundation. Geoff has an Honours degree from Auckland University and over ten years experience working for NZ Treasury and as a manager in the UK civil service. Geoff has co-authored three books alongside Gareth.