Green Party | Foreign Affairs | June 9, 2016
Environment Minister Nick Smith and the National Government appear to have bowed to pressure from mining lobbyists to change the law to help seabed mining companies.
In 2013 Trans-Tasman Resources applied for a marine consent under the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) legislation to mine 66 km² of the seabed for iron ore off the South Taranaki coast. The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Decision Making Panel refused the application. In its 2014 decision the panel said the scale of impacts was uncertain and it wasn’t satisfied that potential environmental effects could be avoided or remedied. Impacts included sediment plumes with potential impacts on fisheries, ecosystem productivity and health, and marine mammals including the threatened Maui’s dolphin.
Documents released to the Green Party under the Official Information Act show that mining industry lobby group Straterra wrote to National Ministers shortly after the 2014 EPA decision, on behalf of Trans-Tasman Resources, pressuring the Government to review the decision making process which governs applications to mine in New Zealand’s EEZ.
Straterra also a produced a paper analysing the Trans-Tasman Resources decision and seeking a range of changes to the EEZ legislation and the way the EPA operates, in order to promote mining.
A year later the Nick Smith went against official advice and proposed a law change to give himself, as Minister, greater influence over decisions to approve or decline seabed mining in the EEZ.
This law change, in the Resource Legislation Amendment Bill (RLA Bill), removes the independent EPA from its role appointing the Decision Making Panel which decides seabed mining and other applications in the EEZ. The Bill instead requires the Environment Minister to appoint members of a Board of Inquiry who will decide these marine consent applications.
The regulatory impact statement for the RLA Bill shows that officials advised against this law change, arguing that greater ministerial involvement would not only increase costs to the taxpayer, but create a perception that the government was seeking to influence the outcome of independent decision-making process. 
National has not been straight-up with New Zealanders. These law changes are clearly about enabling the Minister to influence who makes decisions about controversial and high impact activities such as seabed mining. National is about to replacing an independent decision making process with a more political one, and override decisions that recognised we need to put the long-term health of our environment ahead of short-term profit making.
National is deliberately eroding the independence of our Environmental Protection Authority, by instead giving the Minister the power to handpick the people to decide which environmentally damaging projects should go ahead. The whole point of having these things at arm’s length is so New Zealanders can trust the decision makers to be fair and objective and make evidence based decisions about environmentally damaging use of natural resources.
National’s law changes compromise this independence, allow vested interests more influence and mean the mining industry and other resource users won’t have to lift their game.
Timeline of events
In June 2014 an EPA appointed Decision Making Committee declined Trans-Tasman Resource’s application to mine the seabed off the South Taranaki coast for iron ore. 
Four months later (October 2014) Straterra wrote to National Ministers on behalf of trans-Tasman complaining that the government wasn’t doing enough to counter “an ideologically-driven, anti-mining agenda in New Zealand” and saying that changes were necessary “to the structure of the [EPA-appointed] decision-making committee, the nature and operation of the hearing process, to the way in which the EPA conducts its role, and the law.”
In December 2015, Environment Minister Nick Smith introduced legislation (RLA Bill) which removes the EPA’s role in appointing decision making panels and instead requires the Minister to appoint the Board of Inquiry to decide applications for notified activities such as seabed mining in the EEZ. 
In November 2016, a month before the Minister publicly announced the legislative changes, Trans-Tasman Resources announced it would be making a new bid to mine for iron ore off the South Taranaki bight. 
 MfE (2015) ‘Regulatory Impact Statement – Resource Legislation Amendment Bill 2015: alignment of the decision-making process for nationally significant proposals and notified discretionary marine consents’, page 5.
 See letter obtained under the OIA from Straterra to Ministers titled Minerals Policy Proposals, October 2014, page 5.
 This change confirmed in government Summary of Resource Management Act Reform, page 9. The difference between the two decision-making processes as described in MfE’s Regulatory Impact Statement, page 7.