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Protesters trying to block oil exploration off the East Cape could face fines of up to $10,000 or a year in prison after police this afternoon served them notice to keep away from research vessels.
A ship, the Orient Explorer, is doing the first seismic study of the the Raukumara Basin area since Brazilian state-controlled oil producer Petrobras was awarded a $118 million five-year permit last June.
Officers used a navy rigid hull inflatable boat to visit the fleet this afternoon.
The skippers of the protest fleet were served notices requiring them to get no closer than 250 metres from the bow or stern and 200m from the port and starboard sides of the Ocean Explorer and Ocean Pioneer.
Superintendent Barry Taylor said the notices were served to ensure the safety of people and property were not endangered.
Not abiding by the notices can incur a maximum fine of $10,000 or 12 months imprisonment.
"We've assured all parties that the safety of individuals is a top priority. We also want to ensure that the lawful rights to protest and for companies to go about their lawful business are understood and respected."
COMPANY HITS BACK
Petrobras said today that the protest action had diminished the value of doing business in New Zealand.
The ship hoped to find liquefied natural gas in the 12,333 square kilometre area and has the right to drill one well.
The delay caused by Greenpeace protesters was a disappointment, Petrobras head of New Zealand operations Marco Toledo said.
The company understood people's right to free speech but it wanted to get on with its legal right.
The survey could not continue until there were safe conditions, he said.
"Guarantee (of safety) is not a word that exists in our industry."
But, Petrobras was a leader in the undersea drilling area, Toledo said.
He said the company was prepared to work with the local iwi and felt a warm approach from them.
The protest did diminish the value of doing business in New Zealand, Toledo said. Petrobras operated in 28 countries and this was a "singular" event.
He said there was some time before any drilling might commence and Petrobras hoped to form strong relationships before then.
Toledo said their first option for early withdrawal from the research phase was in August 2012. The protest action could effect that decision, he said.
The surveying could continue if the protesters were "close" but would not operate until it was safe.
Police were continuing to monitor the situation off the East Cape and had asked for Defence Force assist because the needs were beyond their own capability, Superintendent Barry Taylor said.
Several police officers were on board the HMNZS Pukaki and an air force Orion helicopter was involved yesterday afternoon.
"The distance is such that it is beyond our own maritime units' capability. The Royal New Zealand Navy is simply providing transport assistance for us," Superintendent Taylor said.
Police were talking with Greenpeace and trying to come to an agreement over a safe protest area.
POLICE ABLE TO INTERVENE
Police have the ability to intervene in the high seas Greenpeace protest, Prime Minister John Key says.
Key said police had used a long-standing memorandum of understanding with the navy to deploy a ship to the scene of the protest, which extends out to 110 kilometres offshore.
There had been some confusion among the Government about what powers police had between the 12 nautical mile territorial limit and the 200 kilometre Exclusive Economic Zone, where the protests are taking place.
Cabinet sought Crown Law advice about the ability to act against the protests, which have held up the seismic survey, but Key said this morning police had advised they had the same powers they had on land.
He said he did not know how many officers were onboard the ship sent to the area, but he expected the police to intervene in the protests only when they impeded the right of the survey ship to conduct its operations.
'' ... if and when required they can use naval assets in conducting police work. Now, that is required because of the distance they're out to sea and, last night, my understanding was a naval ship was deployed and it's now in the region.
''My expectations are that the police will balance the rights of people to peacefully protest, but also the right of the company to carry out the seismic activity in the Raukumara Basin we granted them as a government.
''How they balance those rights on the high seas is clearly an operational matter for the police.''
Acting Energy and Resources Minister Hekia Parata said she was in constant contact with Petrobras but had not spoken with the Brazilian company since the protest began.
She had also not talked with Greenpeace, she said.
"We're pretty focused on the lawful activities of both sides of this and as long as the protesters are peacefully protesting that's fine but where it infringes on the rights of Petrobras, or any other company who has a lawful permit to be carrying out their survey work, then that's not fine."
The protesters' rights to be heard must be ensured, Labour leader Phil Goff said.
Police had a responsibility to ensure the safety of individuals and would respect the right of people to peacefully protest, he said.
"I hope that both of those things can occur; safety and the right to peaceful protest."
The Government had not undertaken serious consultation with locals and must ensure there were safety and environmental practices in place to prevent a disaster similar to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Goff said.
Independent MP Hone Harawira said the issue was not about Petrobras' right to go about their legal activity.
"It's about the rights of iwi to protect their foreshore and seabed and the rights of New Zealanders to a clean and healthy future for their grandchildren."
The Maori Party remained silent on the issue and was now locked into supporting the "rape and pillage" of New Zealand's coast by Petrobras and other overseas companies, he said.
DEFENCE FORCE INVOLVEMENT 'EXTREME'
Greenpeace described the Defence Force involvement as extreme, and says it and local iwi Whanau a Apanui intend to continue their peaceful protest until the Orient Explorer leaves the area.
Greenpeace and the iwi have four privately owned yachts and a fishing boat in the Raukumara Basin, with a total of 60 people on board. Protesters swam in front of the Orient Explorer on Sunday, forcing a halt to its surveying work.
Greenpeace spokesman Steve Abel said protesters were sending a message that the ship, and deep-sea drilling, were not welcome in New Zealand waters.
The Defence Force help was called for by the National Maritime Co-ordination Centre.
The Government was working on legislation to govern future deep-sea drilling, and Petrobras would not be able to drill before this was in place.
- By MARTIN KAY and KATE CHAPMAN/Stuff