The New Zealand High Court has rejected a challenge by a student climate activist group that new oil exploration permits breached New Zealand law.

The case was brought by Students for Climate Solutions, and argued that Minister of Energy Megan Woods’ issue of oil exploration rights in 2021 violated the Climate Change Response Act 2002 (CCRA) and the Treaty of Waitangi.

These permits granted two companies 10-year rights for oil exploration in Taranaki.

The student organisation, and supporting experts, argued granting these permits breached our climate laws.

The CCRA outlines that New Zealand must contribute to the global effort of limiting the global average temperature rise to 1.5C by 2050.

However, the Government only needs to create a plan for meeting these goals under the Act. There is no legal requirement for companies or the Government to actually meet them. 

The Climate Change Commission wrote last year that meeting our climate goals will require us to stop producing oil.

High Court Judge Francis Cooke found the gas companies involved had no obligations under the CCRA, and that the only law that mattered in this case was the Crown Minerals Act 1991 (CMA).

The purpose of this Act is to “promote prospecting for, exploration for, and mining of Crown owned minerals for the benefit of New Zealand”.

This Act was amended in 2018, preventing further rights for off-shore oil exploration in Aotearoa, and making Taranaki the only place where new on-shore rights could be issued.

Cooke said the gas companies had met their legal obligations under this Act.

“Such activity may be at the expense of climate change, but that is what the Act seeks to advance,” Cooke said.

Law “doesn’t safeguard our futures”, group says

Students for Climate Solutions said they are “incredibly disappointed” with the judge’s findings.

While our case was ambitious, we still had hope that we might see an end to future oil and gas exploration in Aotearoa,” the group said in a statement to Re: News.

“To us, it is unimaginable that the Government could disregard our futures by establishing further oil and gas assets, and we are further disappointed that the courts have found this to be legal.”  

They added the finding that these decisions were legal was “upsetting in its own way”.

“It’s shown us that the law is not made for us, that it does not safeguard our futures, and that it needs to be changed. We now know that our generation is not being heard. We now know that we have to be louder.”

The group said it plans to keep fighting for its cause.

“This case isn’t over, and the silence from the Government is damning. There are higher courts, and this isn’t the only issue where the Government is not meeting its obligations to our future,” they said.

“We refuse to accept that decisions like these, actions that blatantly sell out our futures, can be allowed. This judgement has not closed every door of our challenge, and has only shown the urgency we must act under if we are to avoid the worst of the climate crisis.”

Judge dismisses treaty breach claim

Students for Climate Solutions had also claimed the permits breached the Treaty of Waitangi, arguing that oil extraction will make climate change worse, which will ultimately impact the health and taonga of Māori people.

Cooke said these companies' treaty obligations were not to all Māori, but only to the iwi whose lands they would mine.

He said he believed “meaningful consideration” had been made with those iwi.

Ultimately, Cooke dismissed all three claims made by Students for Climate Solutions because he believed no laws had been broken.

He said the court could only address the law as it is written, and because the climate change issues they raised are legal they’d have to address them through the Government.

A spokesperson for Minister Woods said she was unable to comment on the court’s findings as her team was still working through them.

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