Minister to take back inquiry appointment powers for EEZ applications

The only two seabed mining applications to come before decision-making committees appointed by the EPA.

Environmental law reforms announced today include bringing the relatively new regime governing resource consents in New Zealand's vast offshore exclusive economic zone into line with Resource Management Act processes that apply on land and out to the 12-mile nautical limit.

However, lobbying by mineral explorers disappointed at the rejection of two seabed mining applications under the EEZ regime has been rejected.

"There has been a strong lobby from industry to change the precautionary principles in the legislation and effectively shift the threshold of consents where the likes of the Chatham Rock or Trans-Tasman ironsands mining applications would be made," said Environment Minister Nick Smith, referring to applications to mine phosphate nodules on the Chatham Rise and ironsands in the Taranaki Bight.

The only two seabed mining applications to come before decision-making committees (DMCs) appointed by the Environmental Protection Authority, both failed to gain consents, in part because there was too little understood about the marine environments in which they were operating and the DMCs didn't support an adaptive approach to attempting such developments. Both Chatham Rock Phosphate and Trans-Tasman Resources were angered by the fact that their own investment in science had been used against them in both cases to demonstrate how little was known about environmental risks in the proposed developments.

Dr Smith said "the government does not believe that those thresholds are in the wrong place and there are no changes to those in this bill."

However, the Resource Legislation Amendment Bill does propose taking the appointment of DMCs for EEZ applications out of the hands of the EPA and into the hands of the Minister for the Environment, in line with the way boards of inquiry are appointed now for the boards that oversee fast-tracked RMA consent applications for projects deemed to be of national significance.

"The EEZ legislation never actually set up this notion of a DMC," Dr Smith told BusinessDesk. "The original legislation had the decision-making effectively being made by the board of the EPA and we accept the practicality of that not being workable."

Earlier this month, environmental lobbyist Greenpeace accused the government of "muzzling" the EPA by giving the minister power to "hand pick" the membership of boards of inquiry, a claim Dr Smith rejects.

"The only significant changes are to allow for decommissioning of offshore oil and gas platforms and I would be surprised if they (Greenpeace) did not see that as an improvement and an anomaly that needs to be addressed," he said.