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Govt looks to safeguard sea zone

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media
Nick Smith
Nick Smith

Wellington, June 3 NZPA - The Government is looking to beef up its protection of New Zealand's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Environment Minister Nick Smith announced a new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today and said one of its functions would be to provide "world-best" protection for the EEZ, which takes in 4 million square km of sea surrounding New Zealand.

Work is being done by Environment and Economic Development ministries to strengthen the regulatory system in the EEZ that fall outside the jurisdiction of the Resource Management Act.

"We have got proposals on the table around new legislation for management of environmental effects on the EEZ," Dr Smith told reporters in Auckland after announcing at the Environmental Defence Society annual conference the setting up of the EPA.

"We just don't want to proceed with that legislation unless we are absolutely confident that it is going to provide world-best practices in dealing with the sort of risk we are seeing in the Gulf of Mexico."

His comments come just days after the signing of a major petroleum exploration permit over the Raukumara Basin off the North Island's East Cape.

It went to international Brazilian-based company Petrobras and covers an area of over 12,000 square kilometres. Concerns have been expressed by environmental groups over the risks of the project.

Dr Smith said today the Government did not know how good the best practices in New Zealand would be at handling a situation similar to the BP oil rig contamination, which is being called one of the world's biggest environment disasters.

"We don't know. It is my view that the lack of a proper environmental assessment process in the EEZ is a deficiency in New Zealand's environmental management and that is why we are going to proceed with regulations for environmental assessments."

He said when an economic power as large as the United States was struggling to manage a "global-scale environmental tragedy" such as the BP disaster, it rightly raised questions.

New Zealand had had a reasonably good safety record both environmentally and in occupational safety from the petroleum industry.

"But we want to be sure and that is why we have commissioned this additional work."

The independent report, on health, safety and environmental provisions around minerals activities such as deep sea drilling, should be ready next month, he said.

The Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma) will be incorporated into the EPA and cease to exist as a separate agency.

The EPA will receive and process national consent applications. It will be a Crown entity, with its board accountable to the minister.

Dr Smith said it would help provide greater central government direction on the administration of the environment. It would also pick up administrative functions involved with the emission trading scheme.

The changes would enable the Ministry for the Environment to focus on policy, he said.

The annual operating costs of the EPA were estimated to be about $1m more as a result of being a separate authority to the ministry. A small transitional EPA was formed last year and its functions will be taken up the new body.

The budget allowed $16.8m for the national consents function of the EPA and the Government has estimated that existing environment funds of $26.2m would transferred to it next financial year.

Legislation will be introduced to Parliament later this year to implement Cabinet's decision this week on the EPA with an intended operational date of July 1 next year, Dr Smith said.

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