Legislation regulating deep sea oil drilling inside New Zealand's 600 million hectare Exclusive Economic Zone passed into law yesterday as Labour warned the Government that it had not learned from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil catastrophe.
The Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Act passed its third reading, with 72 votes in favour and 49 votes - from Labour, the Greens and Mana - opposed.
Earlier this month, Environment Minister Amy Adams announced amendments to the legislation which addressed some criticism it prioritised development over protection of the marine environment.
While those amendments - such as bringing the bill's purpose statement into line with the Resource Management Act and increasing fines for breaches - satisfied NZ First and the Commissioner for the Environment, Labour and the Greens remained opposed.
Labour's Moana Mackey yesterday said Labour's primary objection to the Act was it did not meet New Zealand's obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Furthermore, while the purpose statement was consistent with the RMA, the Act did not allow for the the EPA to draw on relevant RMA case law governing oil and gas exploration. That meant the EEZ regime would be more permissive than the RMA, which reflected the Government's stance that oil and gas exploration took precedence over environmental protection.
"It appears the Gulf of Mexico disaster completely passed the National Government by," she told Parliament.
"They did not think at all that that changed the public's perception of this particular activity. They did not think at all that that and the Rena disaster changed the way New Zealanders think about the protection of our marine environment."
Former Environment Minister Nick Smith disputed that. "In fact, this Government immediately commissioned an independent review of both our Maritime Transport, our RMA, and our proposed EEZ legislation to ensure that we did learn the lessons from the Gulf of Mexico and those recommendations are contained in this very bill."
Dr Smith said the Government had to be "upfront about the fact that with the increased pressure for resources, there is a higher level of interest in the minerals and other resources that exist within this huge ocean space".
"Equally so, with new technologies, it is becoming more accessible and we are more able to use those resources, and the position this Government has taken, [is] that we should pick up those economic opportunities, but it should be done in an environmentally responsible way ... ."
Ms Adam said the Act would come into effect once regulations had been developed.
The Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Act:
* Establishes a framework for permits allowing oil, gas and mineral exploration and extraction in New Zealand's exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which lies between 12 and 200 nautical miles off the coast.
* Permits will be issues by the Environmental Protection Agency.
* Companies that breach the Act can be fined up to $10 million.