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MBIE to review exploration protest regime

Thursday 8th August 2019

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The government’s processes for policing protest in New Zealand waters are to be tightened to ensure risks are properly assessed and responded to in a proportionate way, and that proper controls are maintained over how information is gathered and shared.

The non-interference provisions of the Crown Minerals Act are administered by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

Chief executive Carolyn Tremain plans a “refresh” of the agency’s non-interference zone plan. It will be led by MBIE but will also involve the Police, Maritime New Zealand and the New Zealand Defence Force. Customs and the Ministry for Primary Industries will also be involved as needed.

Tremain says the review will increase the level of governance oversight of the overall regime. The current arrangements governing the working relationship between MBIE and Police will also be reviewed and amended to explicitly include expectations of professional conduct around information gathering and sharing.

“The project will also amend the national plan that governs the implementation of the non-interference provisions to provide for greater emphasis on being proportionate in terms of risk mitigations, and wider engagement with environmental and civil society groups and a risk register will be embedded into the national plan,” Tremain said in a statement.

“Work is underway to implement all the report’s recommendations and they will be operationally tested this summer.”

The new initiative follows a review of the current plan – Operation Exploration – by former diplomat and senior public servant Simon Murdoch. His just-released review, commissioned by MBIE earlier this year, followed a highly critical State Services Commission investigation last year into the use of private investigation firms by a range of government bodies, including MBIE.

Murdoch found that, given changes already made to the way MBIE and the Police gather and share information, and with the further amendments proposed, the plan should comply with government and public expectations.

“If Operation Exploration is required to mobilise again, it will be fit for purpose and compliant with public service standards and expectations,” he said in his 34-page report.

A 2013 amendment to the Crown Minerals Act gave MBIE the power to declare non-interference zones around seismic vessels and drilling rigs. The changes were instituted at a time of heavy exploration activity when Greenpeace was also threatening concerted offshore protest to disrupt those efforts.

The crew of the yacht Vega were issued formal warnings in late 2013 after breaching the non-interference zone around the drillship Noble Bob Douglas while it was drilling off the Taranaki coast for Anadarko Petroleum.

In 2017, charges were laid against Greenpeace protesters Russel Norman, Sara Howell and Gavin Mulvay after they forced the seismic ship Amazon Warrior to stop work off the Wairarapa coast by jumping in the water ahead of it.

Murdoch said the ability to gather and share information and intelligence is a “necessity”, but he questioned whether the current multiagency structure was the best form for handling it.

He said Operation Exploration – OpEx - cannot manage the full spectrum of risks relating to offshore seismic surveys or drilling activities without advance knowledge. And it has to be shared with operators and applied appropriately by the operational decision-makers within the OpEx regime.

“Operators may engage local contractors for safety and security liaison. They are critical information providers also representing the rights of their principals to be consulted and informed about interference risk and its management as it impacts their permitted business activities.

“This has to be balanced by the need for officials to carry out all duties related to OpEx mindful of the need to avoid capture or bias by maintaining appropriate ‘professional distance’ from interested parties and/or their contracted representatives.

“In the case of exploration operators, the reality is MBIE and Police will need to engage, closely at times, to receive and share operator information.”

Greenpeace said Murdoch’s report showed government officials had treated environmental protest at sea as a “serious” risk to national security.

Executive director Russel Norman said MBIE intends to protect the drilling operations of OMV this summer when it should be prosecuting them as “climate criminals”.

Norman and Howell were discharged without conviction last year for their part in the Amazon Warrior protest. The court said conviction would be disproportionate given MBIE had offered fellow protestor Mulvay diversion for the same offence.


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