Seventeen common dolphin sightings were reported during the seismic blasting. Photo: Terry Greene/DOC

Official documents show the Government allowed Greymouth Petroleum to conduct seismic surveys in a marine mammal sanctuary where it also hopes to mine, despite two bans on such activity.

One of those bans prevents new surveys in the West Coast North Island Marine Mammal Sanctuary, which stretches from Wellington to well north of Auckland. Before permission was granted, the Department of Conservation warned it may look like the Government was “using a technicality” to avoid “the general prohibition on seismic surveying in the sanctuary outside of existing permit areas”, DoC’s technical advisor on marine issues said.

Now, groups like Greenpeace say the granting of the application means the Government has also broken its 2018 promise to bar new offshore oil and gas exploration.

“The Government promised the public that there would be no new oil and gas exploration. It is a breaking of this promise to do seismic blasting in a new area that didn’t have a permit before the ban,” the group’s programme director Niamh O’Flynn told Newsroom.

“Allowing new exploration is not only a major issue for the climate, but also the health of the ocean. Seismic blasting can have a devastating impact on the health of marine life, such as whales, seals and dolphins.”

Energy and Resources Minister Megan Woods said she “strongly disagreed” with Greenpeace’s view.

“The ban on the granting of new offshore oil and gas permits was introduced through amendments to the Crown Minerals Act in November 2018. However, these amendments preserved certain rights for existing permit holders,” she said.

Julie Anne Genter, the Green Party’s energy and resources spokesperson, said Greymouth’s new authorisation came through “loopholes” which should be closed.

“We know we can’t afford to burn all the fossil fuels that we already know about, which is why it makes sense to stop looking for more. The end to offshore exploration announced by government last term seems to be more of a slow wind-down. It’s disappointing to see Greymouth Petroleum are able to carry on expanding their area of exploration and potentially production,” Genter said.

The permission to conduct new surveys in an offshore area is one of two that Greymouth has received in recent years, according to the documents released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act. Greymouth declined to comment for this story.

They were granted under section 42A of the Crown Minerals Act, which permits the Energy and Resources Minister to authorise geophysical surveys in areas adjacent to areas covered by an existing mining permit. RNZ first reported on this authorisation in April.

However, the new documents show that this is one of two section 42A authorisations Greymouth has received in recent years, that Greymouth has an outstanding application for an offshore exploration permit in parts of the area it conducted the survey in, that the area is part of a marine mammal sanctuary and that the Department of Conservation was consulted on the application.

The section 42A surveys are meant to be conducted to help get a better sense of the resource covered by an existing permit – in this case, Greymouth’s onshore Moturoa block. But this survey could also serve as the first step in a new round of offshore exploration by Greymouth.

In 2019, the company took the Government to court over the oil and gas exploration ban and won the right to have its final application for offshore exploration be reconsidered. The Government has yet to make a final decision on that permit and the area that would be covered by it isn’t exactly clear.

When RNZ revealed Greymouth was conducting offshore surveys with a section 42A exemption, Climate Justice Taranaki’s Catherine Cheung speculated the area was the same as that covered by its reconsidered permit.

“I don’t know where it is exactly but I would assume it would have to be within that area where they have authorisation to do seismic surveying,” she told the broadcaster at the time.

The documents show this is the case, indicating that Greymouth has already won the right to undertake seismic surveys in an area that it could well end up mining, via the 42A exemption process.

Woods told Newsroom she delegated the decision-making to officials at the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).

“Officials have informed me that section 42A authorisation was assessed based on the merits of the application, and without considering other ongoing decisions.”

A spokesperson for MBIE reiterated that Greymouth Petroleum’s existing permit rights were preserved by the 2018 amendments to the Crown Minerals Act.

Dave Lundquist, the Department of Conservation’s technical advisor on marine issues, confirmed to Newsroom that the seismic surveys have already gone ahead, concluding in mid-June.

While the documents obtained by Newsroom have redacted the department’s views on the application, Lundquist shed some light on what conservation officials told MBIE.

“During discussion with MBIE, we noted issuing a s42A authorisation might be perceived as using a technicality in the sanctuary requirements as a means of avoiding the general prohibition on seismic surveying in the sanctuary outside of existing permit areas, but that decision would be up to MBIE based on the merits of the application by Greymouth Petroleum.”

Lundquist said seismic surveys can be harmful to marine mammals and that Greymouth was required to produce a 200-page impact assessment and mitigation plan, with special requirements added by department chief executive.

There were three fur seal sightings and 17 common dolphin sightings over the course of the survey, but no Māui dolphins were spotted.

Greenpeace said seismic surveys are conducted by firing shockwaves at the ocean floor every 10 seconds, non-stop, for weeks.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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