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Offshore petroleum and minerals: Plugging gaps in the present framework

For twenty years, it has been realized that there is a gap in New Zealand’s environmental law in that there is no general environmental legislation for the exclusive economic zone, and now for the extended continental shelf that includes areas more than 200 nautical miles offshore. The jurisdiction of regional councils under the Resource Management Act 1991 does not extend beyond the 12-mile limit, about 22 km offshore. (The jurisdiction of territorial authorities extends only to the mean low water mark.) That has meant that oil and gas operations beyond the 12-mile limit have not had proper environmental scrutiny. Public concern about such matters has sharpened in the light of petroleum exploration in the Raukumara Basin off the East Cape, although so far it has only reached the stage of seismic exploration. The Deepwater Horizon blowout on the Macondo prospect in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 also looms large in public debate. With a lower profile but with a similar potential to cause environmental harm is the possibility of seabed mining operations. A company is gearing up for deep seabed mining off New Britain in Papua New Guinea. Globally, the main targets are cobalt-rich crusts, polymetallic nodules (on the abyssal plain), and massive sulphide deposits (near hydrothermal vents). In New Zealand iron sands are also attractive. Other possible future uses of the offshore are carbon capture and storage and the extraction of gas hydrates. Existing operations such as fishing by bottom trawling present risks of environmental harm to the benthic environment, especially to features such as seamounts. The Minister for the Environment has now announced his intention to introduce a bill to plug this legal gap, at least in relation to petroleum development and seabed mining. Action on this is most welcome. It is desirable to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the proposal, and of the legal framework for oil and gas well drilling in general. Some surprising gaps remain even if the Minister’s proposal is enacted.
Conference Contribution
Type of thesis
Barton, B. (2011). Offshore petroleum and minerals: Plugging gaps in the present framework. Paper presented at conference “Coastlines: Spatial Planning for Land and Sea”, Auckland, 1-2 June 2011.