Gisborne Council officials have already granted exploration consents to Canadian oil companies without seeking public approval – or consulting their own mayor.
The Sunday Star-Times revealed two weeks ago that a joint-venture between TAG Oil and Apache believed there was potential to build "thousands" of onshore wells on the East Coast of the North Island and pump "billions of barrels" of oil.
Documents written by TAG said the area was "literally leaking oil and gas", and the joint venture was prepared to undertake an "aggressive East Coast Basin programme".
A Gisborne District Council document, obtained by the Sunday Star-Times, reveals officials have allowed some of the exploration developments without giving the public opportunity to raise any objections.
"Resource consents have recently been issued for activities associated with drilling shallow shot holes and seismic testing," the paper said. "The environmental impact of this is minimal, and the applications were not notified."
The document was prepared by Hans van Kregten, the council's group manager of environment and policy, before a meeting on Thursday night to discuss the TAG/Apache exploration and whether the council would send an official on the 10-day trip to Canada.
But Gisborne mayor Meng Foon was unaware of the consent applications' success when contacted by the Star-Times.
"In actual fact, I don't know anything about it," he said.
When asked if he believed he ought be consulted on any exploration-related consents, he said: "Yeah, maybe on hot topics like this, I should be told about what is happening so I can respond to you appropriately.
"But on this occasion, obviously our staff never talked to me."
Consent applications don't need to go through the public consultation process but councils must publicly notify an application if "the activity will have, or is likely to have, adverse effects on the environment that are more than minor".
Van Kregten's four-page memo – titled "Management of petroleum exploration/production guidelines" – also revealed that the TAG/Apache consortium planned to drill "two exploratory wells" in the Gisborne district in the middle of the year. Those wells would be up to 2500m in depth and "will be tested where oil is found".
The well testing process will include fracking, a highly controversial procedure which is being banned in a growing number of countries due to claims it can lead to increased seismic activity and cause significant health defects if toxic chemicals leak into the ground and water table.
"Some of the fracking fluids will remain underground; some will flow back up the well to the surface," van Kregten wrote. "The technique is controversial and has been banned in some jurisdictions.
"Risks are that fluids or hydrocarbons will migrate up the well casing into groundwater, that flows occur from the well that are uncontrollable, blowout, or that fracking fluids or contaminated well water are improperly contained and contaminate land or surface water."
The council has admitted it was not currently qualified to make binding decisions on consent applications asking for permission to carry out fracking. For that reason, the Gisborne District Council was considering sending an official on a research trip to North America which Apache will pay for, a move revealed by the Star-Times last week.
The trip would only feature management and technical staff from affected councils and not elected councillors. It's understood that the trip would cost Apache $5000 a head.
GDC chief executive Lindsay McKenzie said there was nothing untoward about the paid-for trip. It was an opportunity for staff to upskill to deal with new approaches to oil and gas exploration. "We understand that some people may be dubious about a trip for staff to Canada being paid for by an oil company. It is important to remember that under the Resource Management Act when someone wants to do something new with our resources, the cost of ensuring council is well informed is met by the applicants, not the ratepayers. This is exactly what is happening here."
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