Greenpeace is making a last ditch attempt to halt Taranaki deep-sea oil drilling, which began overnight, filing papers in the High Court in Wellington for judicial review of the regulating agencies' performance in permitting Texan oil company Anadarko to drill 150 kilometres off the Waikato coast.
But the environmental lobbyist's on-the-water protest action is over, with its New Zealand director Bunny McDiarmid announcing she's "heading home" to "continue the campaign in the High Court".
McDiarmid has spent more than a week at sea on the Greenpeace yacht Vega, which has breached a 500 metre exclusion zone around the Anadarko drill ship, the Noble Bob Douglas, for the past seven days.
The Greenpeace legal action is targeting the Environmental Protection Authority and Maritime New Zealand, saying the EPA made "an error in law" by failing to examine and approve key oil spill management documents signed off by MNZ, which has responsibility for marine oil spill clean-up.
Anadarko spudded in an exploration well in the Romney prospect, in 1500 metres of water, to drill 3,100 metres, hoping to find a very large oil and gas field. It is the first well ever drilled in the Deepwater Taranaki licence area (PEP38451) and has provoked widespread public protest and concern.
Greenpeace says it has legal advice the EPA made an 'error in law' by allowing Anadarko to drill without looking at several key documents, including reports on oil spill modelling and emergency plans to deal with an oil spill, according to the legal papers.
"If Greenpeace's challenge is successful, it could bring a halt to Anadarko's drilling plans, as they should not have been given permission to drill because the requirements of the law were not met," said Greenpeace New Zealand's chief policy adviser Nathan Argent.
BusinessDesk reported Sunday a major discrepancy between the transparency of documentation available from the EPA, where Anadarko's Environmental Impact Assessment report is published, and Maritime New Zealand's lack of disclosure relating to oil spill clean-up and disaster response.
The maritime agency has required Official Information Act requests to access detailed plans, which were filed by Anadarko and signed off just four days before the Noble Bob Douglas arrived at the drill site.
A spokesman said the agency "will be looking at ways to make sure this comes out quicker in the future" and the issue has attracted attention at senior levels at the Ministry for the Environment, which funds the EPA.
Both EPA chief executive Rob Forlong and Anadarko spokesman Alan Seay have stressed that permitting activity in the Exclusive Economic Zone is "a new process", being based on a new set of agency relationships intended to seamlessly regulate deep-sea oil drilling without overlapping.
"It was an iterative process. There was a bit of that," Seay told BusinessDesk.
The EPA is responsible for regulating environmental effects, MNZ for oil spills and well integrity, and the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment regulates workplace health and safety.
An MfE Cabinet minute in August 2012 noted that "no regime assesses the acceptability of the activity taking place in a particular location of the EEZ and continental shelf, given the localised environments and existing interests."
Forlong said last week the EPA had seen summaries of the Discharge Management Plan and other key elements of annexes to the Anadarko environmental impact assessment, but that it clearly did not have responsibility for signing off oil spill response arrangements.
The Environmental Defence Society argued last week that this was a misinterpretation of the new statute governing the EEZ.
"The impact assessment must specify the measures that the applicant intends to take to avoid, remedy, or mitigate the adverse effects identified," says EDS legal advice. "In respect of a petroleum exploration activity, this must include the measures the applicant intends to take to avoid the risk of an oil spill.
"The EPA must be satisfied that it has information ... sufficient to enable the EPA to understand the nature of the activity and its effects on the environment."
The Greenpeace legal bid comes at the 11th hour and gives McDiarmid and shipmate, former Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons, a reason to end a protest that has failed to spark aggressive enforcement actions.
While Anadarko had laid a complaint with the police last Thursday about the exclusion zone breach, spokesman Alan Seay told BusinessDesk this was "just a formality".
"We weren't looking for any response from the police," he said. Weather in the notoriously rough Tasman Sea has been calm since the protest began seven days ago.