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New environment agency to help protect against NZ oil spill

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media
Nick Smith
Nick Smith

By NZPA reporters

Wellington, June 3 NZPA - The Government's new environmental protection agency (EPA) will help protect New Zealand's ocean from catastrophes similar to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Environment Minister Nick Smith says.

In announcing the EPA today, Dr Smith said one of its functions would be to provide "world-best" protection for New Zealand's exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which takes in 4 million square kilometres of sea surrounding New Zealand.

"I think we've all been reminded of the importance of that with the environmental tragedy that's occurred on the Gulf of Mexico.

"The Government is determined to ensure that New Zealand's marine environment is properly protected as we expand the petroleum exploration and development in the EEZ," Dr Smith said.

The EPA would "bring under one roof a wide range of environment regulatory functions and provide strong national direction", he said.

About 50 staff would be transferred from the Ministries of Economic Development and Environment to run the EPA.

It would be an efficient government agency not a bureaucracy, Dr Smith said.

Work was 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 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 12,000sq km. 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 environmental 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.

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.

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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