While the oil industry has no moral right to be opening up new, extreme frontiers in its search for the last few drops of oil - given the damage climate change will do to life on this planet - it’s also apparent that the industry may not have a legal right either.

This morning Greenpeace and te Whānau-ā-Apanui jointly lodged an application for a judicial review of the granting of Petrobras’ permit to drill for oil in the Raukumara Basin, off the East Cape.

The Basin has already been extensively surveyed. The Stop Deep Sea Oil Flotilla protested – and successfully disrupted - that work earlier this year.

Now the company is deciding whether or not to start drilling exploratory wells, as allowed by its permit.

The joint legal action is calling for a review of that permit on the basis that the Government:

  • failed to properly consider the environmental impact of Petrobras’ activities, as required by New Zealand’s obligations under customary international law, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS), and the Convention for the Protection of Natural Resources and Environment of the South Pacific Region 1986 (the South Pacific Convention);
  • failed to properly consider the potential effects on marine wildlife;
  • failed to factor in the requirements of the Treaty of Waitangi, which should have included consulting with te Whānau-ā-Apanui; and
  • failed to consider the iwi’s fishing rights and customary title claims to the area.

Whether the High Court in Wellington will agree remains to be seen; but … te Whānau-ā-Apanui most certainly don’t want drilling to go ahead, and there is no doubt that a major oil spill would have a devastating effect on the seabirds, dolphins, whales, and the other wildlife on much of the East Coast of the North Island, if such a spill was to occur.

It’s also plain that major spills do happen. The Deepwater Horizon (an exploratory rig like the one that Petrobras would bring to New Zealand) disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year put paid to any notion that they don’t. Millions of barrels of oil had poured from BP’s well, before it was finally sealed, three months after the spill began. More than 6000 ships were part of the (unsuccessful) clean up operation – New Zealand couldn’t muster a fraction of that number. And while the Deepwater Horizon was operating in 1500 metres of water, parts of Petrobras’ permit area is 3000 metres deep: a diver can only descend as far as 200 metres to fix a problem on the seafloor; the risks are amplified as the water gets deeper.

Pushing into deeper and deeper water, in the world’s most unspoilt places, like the East Cape, and the Arctic, will only make climate change worse. What’s needed is the Government to give up its obsession with fossil fuels, and start putting the handouts it gives the likes of the deep water oil industry into seed funds that will enable this country’s clean energy sector to realise its enormous potential.

We’ll keep you posted on progress.