Global Focus: New Zealand

18th September 2014

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Alec Tang on efforts in New Zealand to strike a balance between sustainable management and resource extraction

New Zealand – or Aotearoa, to give it its indigenous Maori name – is a country of picture postcard views, from its pristine alpine headwaters to the 15,000 km or more of natural coastlines.

However, like any modern country balancing economic development with environmental protection and social responsibility, New Zealand has its challenges.

One of the key debates now raging centres on the sustainable management of its seas – balancing environmental protection and cultural sensitivity with the economic potential provided by the diverse natural resources.

Until recently, there was no mechanism to assess and regulate the environmental effects of an array of potential offshore activities, from petroleum exploration and seabed mining to marine energy generation.

However, the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Act 2012 (EEZ Act) changed this, by placing impact assessment at the centre of the regulatory framework and putting an independent government agency – New Zealand’s Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) – in charge of decision-making.

Recently, the first full marine consent application – for iron sand seabed mining off the west coast – was decided, offering both proponents and opponents an insight into the sustainable development balance sought by the EPA.

The 90-day consenting process culminated with a refusal of the application (now at appeal)due to uncertainties and inadequacies in the information presented, and concerns that the “life-supporting capacity of the environment” could not be safeguarded.

The New Zealand government heralded the decision as confirming the robustness of the regulatory framework and as evidence of a “balanced approach” to development.

Elsewhere, the decision has been reported as a “major knock” to investment in resource extraction, but it has not resulted in a major withdrawal from New Zealand.

Applications for seabed phosphate mining and petroleum development drilling, which were lodged before the decision, have continued throughout the process.

What is clear, however, is that proponents need to fully understand the regulatory context and the sustainable management balance sought by the EPA to minimise the risk of delays to their capital projects.

Alec Tang, MIEMA CEnv, is a principal consultant, environment and sustainability, at ERM.

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