Lawyers challenging Brazilian oil company Petrobras' deep sea oil exploration licence say the Minister of Energy failed to consider the impact on marine life of seismic surveying.
Counsel for Greenpeace and the iwi Te Whanau a Apanui argued in the High Court at Wellington that while nothing could stop the minister issuing an exploration licence, even if he had evidence of potential environmental harm, he was still obliged to "give consideration to" such relevant evidence.
That had not occurred, said David Salmond, in occasionally emotive submissions that earned cautions from Justice Warwick Gendall that he was seeking a judicial review, not trying to persuade a jury.
The Petrobras exploration licence covers a large offshore area in the Raukumara Basin, offshore from the East Cape of the North Island.
The company faced opposition from a small flotilla when it undertook seismic surveying in the region last year.
The bid for judicial review seeks to overturn the licence on the grounds it was granted without all relevant environmental and Treaty of Waitangi partnership obligations being considered.
Anticipating the Crown's lawyers may argue that the Maritime Transport Act covers oil spills, Salmond argued the Minister of Energy was the first and only line of defence to consider whether an area was simply too risky to drill, and that decision point came when considering an exploration licence application.
"Are there areas like the Great South Basin that are too deep, where it would be too difficult to control a spill?" said Salmond, referring not only to obligations to consult iwi, but also for New Zealand to meet its international obligations under various treaties covering the marine environment.
He cited an affidavit from an American marine scientist, Professor Richard Steiner, saying New Zealand was the only country Steiner was aware of where it was not standard best practice to conduct an environmental impact assessment before granting an exploration licence.
On the obligation to consult adequately with iwi, Salmond argued the Government should have consulted far more widely than with Te Whanau a Apanui, because of the potential for an oil spill to reach all parts of the North Island east coast, down to Christchurch in the South Island and as far as Norfolk Island, an Australian territory.
Instead, there had been no consideration of where a spill might end up.
Salmond also suggested iwi should have been told Petrobras was the applicant, and that it was "the largest player south of the equator from a country with an appalling record towards its indigenous people".
This, and many other aspects of the Petrobras application, had not been conveyed to the iwi, who had thought the written notification of consultation meant it was no more than "a minor issue".
"Where was the meaningful consultation?" said Salmond. "It just didn't happen."
He pointed to international studies suggesting seismic research, which uses sonar explosions to investigate geological structures, amounted to "a shattering racket" that echoes for kilometres underwater, damaging and in some cases killing marine species, including whales.
That alone made consultation with Te Whanau a Apanui important, since whales, kahawai and moki were all regarded as taonga, or treasures, by the iwi, and therefore represented a matter on which Treaty of Waitangi-based consultations should have been required and environmental limits to planned activities considered, said Salmond.