New Zealand's remote position on the globe is mostly an economic disadvantage. But it has one potential benefit: without neighbours within 200 nautical miles, we have the world's fifth largest "exclusive economic zone" of ocean and seabed. It is an area 20 times larger than our land mass and likely to have its fair share of minerals, including oil and gas.

The deep sea drilling required to reach those deposits is no longer discouraging the world's prospectors, and New Zealand needs to attract their interest. At the same time, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, that set up the exclusive economic zones, requires the countries with jurisdiction to protect the marine environment. The Government has a bill before Parliament that aims to balance economic and environmental considerations in the 200-mile zone. It is proving highly contentious.

Environmentalists and Opposition parties say "balance" is not good enough. They want the scales weighted in favour of the environment. They were supported by Parliament's Commissioner for the Environment, who advised a select committee on the bill that under the Law of the Sea countries "can" pursue economic development but they "must" protect the environment. "The former is optional, the latter is not," she said.

The Government gave little ground in the select committee, but it appears willing to give some now. The Environment Minister, Amy Adams, told a conference of the Environmental Defence Society in Auckland this week that the bill's purpose would be amended to more closely resemble the Resource Management Act which applies out to the 12-mile territorial limit. And proposed penalties for marine pollution would be raised from $600,000 to $10 million.


Critics are reserving judgment until they see the fine print of these amendments, but they seem unlikely to be satisfied. They constantly invoke the accident in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago and the oil spill from the Rena in the Bay of Plenty last year as reasons to oppose all undersea drilling, and note the basins of our submarine continent are 3000m to 4000m deep, twice the depth of the Gulf of Mexico.

The basins are so deep that environmentalists are not sure what marine life is down there to protect. The present wording of the bill would seem adequate in that respect. When applications for seabed drilling come to the Environmental Protection Authority it would have to take into account the protection of "biological diversity and integrity of marine species, ecosystems and processes".

Green Party spokesman Gareth Hughes told Parliament during the bill's second reading, "No rules, no amount of consultation and no amount of Government legislation are ever going to plug a deep sea blowout and the corresponding catastrophic oil spill. The only way we can protect our waters, our tourism, our aquaculture industries and our beaches is to make deep sea drilling a prohibited activity."

When he cites the Rena experience, though, he may find the public less fearful. That "environmental catastrophe" turned out to be fairly quickly cleaned up. It is doubtful that a spill much further out to sea would do more damage to our nearest coast.

While the UN convention made environmental protection obligatory it cannot have intended that protection would preclude economic exploitation. It did call the zones it created "exclusive economic zones". If mining, fishing, tourism and cable laying are going to be possible, there will have to be permissible risk. The bill must not lose its balance.