Space vehicle launches are expected to deposit some material on the seabed in New Zealand’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and extended continental shelf. Last year, the Government made regulations to permit the activity in some authorised areas. The Government is now considering how best to manage the activity in the wider EEZ and continental shelf and recently sought feedback on its proposed regulation change.
The consultation closed at 5:00pm on Wednesday 13 September 2017.
Purpose of the proposed regulation
The purpose of the proposed regulation is to manage the effects of the deposit of jettisoned material on the environment and existing interests. The Government is considering which classification under the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Act 2012 (EEZ Act) is most appropriate for managing the potential effects.
Why the proposed regulation is needed
In September 2015, Wairoa District Council granted Rocket Lab resource consents to build and launch space vehicles from the Mahia Peninsula. After a space vehicle is launched and before it reaches orbit, material from the vehicle is jettisoned and falls back to Earth. Some of the material will burn up in the atmosphere but some may land in the waters of the EEZ, sink and be deposited on the seabed.
In October 2016, regulations under the EEZ Act made the deposit of jettisoned material a permitted activity within some authorised areas. Those were areas where test launches and some early commercial launches from the Mahia Peninsula would deposit material. The regulations were drafted to expire in 2021.
The Government anticipates that more small satellites will be launched into lower earth orbit on flight paths that could deposit jettisoned material in a broader area. Therefore, it is considering how to manage the effects of the activity in the wider EEZ and extended continental shelf.
The deposit of jettisoned material on the seabed outside the authorised areas has not previously been classified or considered under the EEZ Act. This means it is automatically treated as a discretionary activity and requires a fully notified marine consent. The way the activity is regulated should be proportionate to the level of likely effects.
Considerations for the proposed regulation
How an activity is classified depends on the potential for adverse effects on the environment and existing interests.
An activity can be:
- prohibited ̶ meaning it cannot happen in any circumstances
- permitted ̶ meaning it can occur and does not require a marine consent as long as it meets certain conditions
- non-notified discretionary ̶ meaning a marine consent is required before the activity can begin but the application process does not require public notification
- notified discretionary ̶ meaning a marine consent is required before the activity can begin and the application process provides an opportunity for public submissions.
The Minister for the Environment can make regulations under the EEZ Act to classify the deposit of jettisoned material but must take into account a number of factors.
- effects on the environment and existing interests of allowing the activity with or without a marine consent
- importance of protecting rare and vulnerable ecosystems
- nature and effect of other marine management regimes.
Regulations cannot provide for an activity to be permitted if the Minister considers that:
- the activity is likely to have adverse effects on the environment or existing interests that are significant in the circumstances, and
- it is more appropriate for the adverse effects to be considered in relation to an application for a marine consent.
Effects from jettisoned material depositing on the seabed
The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) assessed the environmental risk of space launch vehicles depositing jettisoned material in a wide area to the north, east and south of New Zealand.
The risk assessment found that the ecological risk was low for a splashdown of the largest likely deposit of rocket debris in New Zealand in the foreseeable future. The largest deposit considered was 40 tonnes, broken into fragments. The study considered the way effects could accumulate with repeated launches and the effects of other activities. It concluded that the risk would remain minor up to 100 repeated launches in one general area. However, it could become moderate after 100 and high at 1000.
The risk of a vessel being directly impacted by a fragment falling back to Earth is remote. However, notices to mariners and navigational warnings will inform vessels of launch activities and potential landing zones. This could mean fishing vessels temporarily move out of the area.
2017 Draft Regulatory Impact Statement: Regulation of deposit of jettisoned material from space vehicle launches under the Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Act 2012