A new nuclear-free moment? First things first

Victoria University's Dr Amanda Thomas argues the new government has an opportunity to properly confront climate change by repealing undemocratic laws and honouring good Treaty relationships

During the 2017 election campaign, Jacinda Ardern declared that climate change is our generation’s nuclear-free moment. The campaign to become nuclear-free involved years of direct action, debate and ultimately a sympathetic government. If the new government wants climate politics to resemble such vibrant environmental politics, some laws are going to have to change, particularly those relating to oil and gas development.  

Oil and gas have been extracted in Aotearoa New Zealand for decades, mostly in Taranaki. But in 2011, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, with Greenpeace, kicked off sustained protests against exploration in the iwi’s territorial waters off the East Cape. This came at a time when the National-led government was trying to make New Zealand more attractive to the fossil fuel industry.

As part of the protest action, Elvis Teddy sailed an iwi fishing boat into the path of a Petrobras exploration vessel. He was arrested by police, who were helped by the navy. But attempts to prosecute him highlighted gaps in the laws governing the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the area of territorial waters that begin 12 nautical miles off the shore.

After reported meetings between industry representatives and government ministers, the National-led government passed two pieces of legislation that aimed to increase certainty for fossil fuel investors, and had the effect of limiting public involvement in decision-making.

The first was the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Act 2012. While there has been a need for legislation to provide environmental protection in the EEZ for some time, this statute seems to facilitate oil and gas development rather than protect against its effects or consider the effects of new developments on the climate. Regulations under the Act limit any public involvement in decisions about oil and gas exploration, including those about drilling exploratory wells.

It also has a weaker commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi than other environmental legislation, such as the Resource Management Act. Combined with other regulatory measures, this means oil and gas development can happen without iwi or hapū agreement. This undermines the idea of partnership between the Crown and Māori. A truly Treaty-based approach would mean the Crown asking Māori first what kind of development they want in their rohe.

If climate change is our nuclear-free moment, we need rigorous debate about how to prevent the worst effects of a warming world.

The second legislative change was an amendment to the Crown Minerals Act, commonly known as the “Anadarko Amendment”. This amendment criminalised protest at sea when activists came within 500m of an industry vessel, and expanded the Defence Force’s power to detain and arrest people without a warrant. Sir Geoffrey Palmer and others said the changes were in breach of the Bill of Rights Act and international human rights conventions protecting peaceful protest.

Three Greenpeace activists, including former MP Russel Norman, were charged under the ‘Anadarko Amendment’ in 2017 for obstructing the path of the Amazon Warrior, a seismic testing vessel. In the past month, another group of activists in Taranaki have reportedly been threatened with prosecution under the Amendment.

Two colleagues, Dr Sophie Bond and Dr Gradon Diprose, and I, along with postgraduate students, have spent four years talking to activists affected by, and concerned about, these changes, as well as NGOs, oil and gas industry representatives and local government decision-makers.

Many activists we talked to were frustrated by what they described as a loss of democracy — their ability to have a say about whether or not oil and gas developments go ahead in their coastal regions. As they pointed out, if we want to stay within 2C of global warming, much of the fossil fuel that has already been discovered needs to stay underground.

The sense that democracy was being limited was made worse by the surveillance of environmental activists, a practice that has been observed globally. Along with Māori sovereignty campaigners, environmental activists were targeted in the October 2007 police raids. In 2017, Greenpeace New Zealand lodged a civil suit against Thompson & Clark Investigations for alleged spying on oil-free activists over a number of years. Research tells us corporate and police surveillance has a chilling effect on democracy.

Many of our research participants operate under the assumption they are under corporate or police surveillance. Some described being visited by police, and some talked about being less trusting of other activists because of the police’s history of using infiltrators. A number of our participants experienced heavy-handed responses by police during direct actions.

If climate change is our nuclear-free moment, we need rigorous debate about how to prevent the worst effects of a warming world. Part of this means an open discussion about whether the New Zealand government should continue to encourage and subsidise the fossil fuel industry. We need open participation in such a debate without threats of surveillance, and a recognition that positive environmental and social change, like the nuclear-free movement achieved, often happens through direct action.

There’s an opportunity here for the new government to repeal undemocratic laws, honour good Treaty relationships and create the conditions for Aotearoa to properly confront climate change.