Environmentalists call foul over 'draconian' new law

The seismic survey vessel Orient Explorer, contracted by Brazilian giant Petrobras a year ago off...
The seismic survey vessel Orient Explorer, contracted by Brazilian giant Petrobras a year ago off East Cape, being buzzed by Greenpeace protesters. Photo by Malcolm Pullman.
The National-led Government may be throwing the welcome mat out to offshore explorers but testing the new law specifically protecting their vessels and oil rigs is likely to escalate into an unwieldy constitutional battle over the Bill of Rights Act.

Labelled by environmentalists as the Petrobras or Anadarko law because those companies have been highly active by New Zealand standards in ship-borne seismic testing, the Crown Minerals (Permitting and Crown Land) Bill passed into law on Tuesday, as proposed by Energy and Resources Minister Simon Bridges.

Labour, the Green Party and environmentalists are calling foul over the law change, which they claim was deliberately withheld from select committee scrutiny but later added on by Mr Bridges. He countered that the change had been flagged.

The law change was passed by one vote - 61 to 60.

Under the new law, an individual protester faces penalties up to $50,000 and 12 months' jail, and an organisation up to $100,000, for damaging or interfering with mining structures, vessels or their activities within 500m.

While Greenpeace has for decades placed itself in the forefront of physical protests, fledgling Otago-based protest group Oil Free Otago should pause for thought over its protest strategies.

Forest & Bird vowed 18 months ago to fight plans by Australian coal developer Bathurst Resources on the West Coast. That project is a year behind schedule, after challenges in the Environment Court, High Court and Court of Appeal.

The new offences primarily relate to high-seas exploration activities beyond New Zealand's 12-mile territorial limit, in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which extends 200 nautical miles offshore.

Mr Bridges could have tried, with much less controversy, to extend the Maritime Transport Act into the EEZ, which would have covered all manner of shipping matters and protesters, but chose instead to single out the oil and gas explorers for special treatment.

Mr Bridges, who rejected suggestions he was lobbied by the exploration sector, said the Bill was ''key'' to New Zealand realising the potential value of these resources, collectively worth more than $4 billion to the country.

''It supports the Government's objective of growing the petroleum and minerals sectors, while ensuring better co-ordination of health and safety and environmental oversight.''

Labour Energy and Resources spokeswoman Moana Mackey labelled the law change ''draconian'' and tilted in favour of oil and gas explorers, at the expense of people's right to protest.

''The restrictions and related criminal charges only apply to protest vessels, and only those targeting oil and gas exploration.

''Anyone else behaving in a dangerous or reckless manner, or in a way that would be illegal in our territorial waters, is not covered. The minister's claim that this is first and foremost about safety is patently not true.

''This is draconian legislation that legal experts have pointed out contravenes a number of our international obligations, as well as the Bill of Rights Act,'' she said.

- simon.hartley@odt.co.nz

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