New Zealand Maori Claim Oil & Gas Rights

A claim on oil and gas interests by the Maori of New Zealand could render so-called full and final treaty settlements meaningless. The anticipated Waitangi Tribunal recommendation that Maori have an interest in oil and gas leases will affect already settled treaty claims on oil and gas-producing land, according to Wellington Tenths Trust trustee and Ngati Te Whiti hapu society chairman Peter Love. "The goalposts have shifted. Any settled claims to date on land that is producing oil and gas may have to be revisited because that wasn't in the equation (at the time of settlement)."

Mr. Love was responding to a prediction by the New Zealand Herald on Saturday that the Waitangi Tribunal would rule that oil and gas were tribal 'taonga' or treasures of South Taranaki iwi Nga Ruahine.

Ngati Te Whiti supported Nga Ruahine in this claim, but Mr. Love said whether oil was a 'taonga' or not was irrelevant. "What we believe the judgment will say is that resources under the ground were as much 'taonga' of Maori as the ground itself. We don't have to go down that road that we regard it as 'taonga'; we regard it as an asset."

The treaty breach occurred in 1937 when the government passed legislation which meant oil and gas belonged to the government, Mr. Love said.

Weekend reports said the tribunal recommendation advised the Government to address the treaty breach before selling its 11 percent stake in the Kupe natural gas field off the South Taranaki coast to state-owned power firm Genesis, which already owned a 70 percent stake in the field. The recommendation did not oblige the Government to do anything, but Genesis chief executive Murray Jackson said the deal would not be finalized until the Government dealt with the Maori claim.

Mr. Love was expecting strong resistance to the recommendation from the Government. The Government said in 2000 that petroleum would not be part of any settlement of treaty claims. Associate Minister of Energy and New Plymouth MP Harry Duynhoven said matters had moved on since then.

"The 1937 Oil and Petroleum Act basically said oil and gas is completely a government issue. What's happened since then is that's the line that's been used. Since then the Waitangi Tribunal has been giving advice to the government. The end result is that it takes advice, but it's not binding." Mr. Duynhoven did not know whether the Government would treat the matter as urgent.

Petroleum Exploration Association of New Zealand executive officer Mike Patrick said the petroleum industry would be uneasy at the potential for any deal to affect the royalty regime in New Zealand, which he described as "very, very attractive" in world terms. But he was not concerned otherwise. "When the claim was lodged the position we took was this is a matter for the Crown and iwi to sort out," said Dr Patrick. "Unless they do something pretty strange it doesn't really affect the industry. Should they acknowledge the claim and then come to some arrangement to provide compensation, then that's a deal strictly between Crown and iwi."

Dr. Patrick was not expecting any settlement process to be hindered by delays. "They were always going to give it urgency. It's not going to be as tricky as fisheries because it's not related to coastline, population, rural or urban." But the issue opened a can of worms, he said. "OK, iwi lost the right to their oil and gas reserves under their land, but so did everybody else in 1937."