Under the draft Seabed Minerals Bill 2019, the minister can declare what constitutes an environmental issue, potentially avoiding laws requiring an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) say critics.
“Yes, very concerning,” said Teina Mackenzie, president of Te Ipukarea Society (TIS) in response to emailed questions from Cook Islands News.
“This may be partly as a result of us winning the purse seine case, and the Court of Appeal ruling that there should have been an EIA done before entering into the EU Purse Seining Partnership,” she said.
Even though government is apparently planning to appeal their loss at the Privy Council, she said they may “want to avoid such a prospect in future”.
Her comments were made before government moved to extend the deadline for public consultation, following wide-ranging questions sent to Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown.
Deadline for public submissions on the draft law was extended from last Wednesday to February 27, after being released just 30 working days before.
However, Mackenzie cautions that “whether it means anything is debatable”.
TIS members fear members of parliament will not take submissions on the draft law seriously enough.
Cross-party support for seabed exploration means even a properly researched legal opinion may end up having little impact.
“I believe both sides of parliament will support this bill, as they are looking much more at the potential economic benefits than the potential environmental impacts.”
However, even the potential economic benefits are in doubt.
Cook Islands News research included review of a 2016 assessment co-funded by the Pacific Community (SPC) and the European Union.
That review raised the discovery of an apparent multi-million math error by assessment contractors Cardno, an Australian-based worldwide consultancy.
Annual net revenue of US$47 million from seabed mining was forecast in their “Assessment of the Costs and Benefits of Mining Deep Sea Minerals.”
However, the annual figure is based on total revenue of $494m over 20 years.
Dividing roughly half a billion dollars by two decades equals around $25m – a $20m gap in the Cardno forecast figure.
Whatever the reason for the $20 million+ math error, the fact it was not spotted by anyone in government - or the opposition - for nearly three years reflects long-standing concerns about a lack of attention to detail.
DPM Brown told Cook Islands News he was referring questions to the seabed working group.
He did not respond to a follow up question asking whether other cabinet ministers had been fully briefed on concerns about the draft law.
If the bill passes as drafted, Brown would gain direct ministerial power over an unknown industry, which has prompted some fear over potentially disastrous environmental impacts.
As well as powers to decide what is or is not an environmental issue, Brown could sack critical members of the National Environment Council (NEC)– which automatically dissolves after making a decision.
Heavy penalties await anyone who leaks information about seabed proposals. If convicted under the draft law, a leaker could face up to $100,000 in fines and five years in jail.
Asked for comment to get both sides of the story, the Seabed minerals minister said there was “only one side mate – that’s the CI side”.
What that side’s position might involve is still unanswered.
“Sounds like they just want a rubber stamp committee,” says Mackenzie, referring to sections of the draft dealing with the NEC.
“There needs to be more transparency from government about what goes on inside closed doors.”
But any council member who “publicly criticises” NEC decisions faces getting sacked by the minister.
“This does sound a bit draconian,” says Mackenzie, “trying to stop any possible dissent in a committee that Government establishes.”
Government officially began public consultations on October 31 last year, but an update to the draft law was not made public until Friday December 21 - just before Christmas - and were due to close submissions by last Wednesday.
With that date fast approaching, government announced last week that it would extend the deadline, adding another 14 working days to the original 30.
There has been no answers as yet from the seabed working group to questions sent by CINews to the minister.