During the passage of legislation establishing a new regime for activity in New Zealand's exclusive economic zone, environmentalists fretted that the Government had got the balance wrong. Economic considerations would ride roughshod over environmental protection, they complained.

They can now rest far more easily. On the evidence of the first response to an application for seabed mining, those seeking consent for economic activity in the 200-mile zone will have to clear a very high hurdle.

The applicant was TransTasman Resources (TTR), which wants to dredge iron ore-rich sand off the South Taranaki coast and export about five million tonnes of ore a year to Asian steel mills.

Its plan was roundly rejected last week by the Environmental Protection Agency, which described it as premature. The company should, said the agency, have spent longer on understanding the impacts of its proposal on the environment and existing users.


TTR estimated that its project would generate $147 million a year in exports for New Zealand, and said the local community would benefit from hundreds of new jobs.

That tallies very well with the thinking of a Government that is keen to see new offshore oil, gas and mining industries. But the EPA's decision-making committee found every reason under the new legislation to reject it.

There were, it said, uncertainties in the scope and significance of the potential adverse environmental impacts and those on existing interests, such as fishers and iwi.

In such circumstances, it was required to favour caution and environmental protection. Even an adaptive management approach advanced by TTR late in the hearing process did not alter the picture.

Additionally, said the agency, there was a lack of clarity about the extent of the economic benefit to New Zealand outside royalties and taxes and the economic impact of the adverse effects.

The latter finding is particularly relevant. Environmentalists worried that economic benefit would take priority over protecting biological diversity and suchlike when an application was considered. That has not proved to be the case. Indeed, it is clear that any such benefit will, itself, have to be argued comprehensively and convincingly.

TTR's application was opposed, either fully or in part, by the vast majority of 4702 submissions. Included in that number were fishing companies Sanford and Talley's.

Sanford said the operation could affect its economic wellbeing, diminish the value of its quota assets and reduce its access to public water space. But that view was effectively rejected by the Ministry of Primary Industries, which, while taking a neutral stand, said there was likely to be a "negligible or non-existent" impact on fishing.

The Department of Conservation, however, opposed the proposal in part, asking for further information about its effects, including those on threatened species.

That highlighted the uncertainty which persuaded the agency that caution must be exercised. But it also raised the question of what degree of certainty could ever be achieved for a project that would take place 22km to 36km off the coast of Patea.

Little research is available on the impact of seabed mining on deep-water environments. Could applicants for projects in the exclusive zone, therefore, have any confidence that a bar of the height implied by the agency's decision would ever be hurdled in terms of permissible risk?

It is little wonder that the Environmental Defence Society hailed the decision. Late changes to the exclusive economic zone legislation have clearly tilted the scales in favour of the environment. Too much so for the Government's mining ambitions.