Monday, August 14, 2006

A ridge too far?

Last year, I blogged about the Palmerston North City Council jumping into bed with Mighty River Power to develop a windfarm behind Massey University. Unlike most wind projects, I was a dubious about this one, because it was located in the middle of a reserve. Today, the council held an open day as part of its consultation process on the plan, so I went along to take a look at the site. For a token fee, I was given a bus ride to the top of the Tararuas, then a ride along the ridge in an army truck to look at their anemometer mast. It was certainly windy up there, and the ecological impacts seem low - a road would need to be widened, and some "scrub" (which others would probably call "regenerating native forest") cleared, and some of this can be repaired later - but I'm still more than a little dubious about the project.

The first reason to be dubious is that they want to develop a reserve. As with the Bay of Plenty Electricity plan to flood part of a DOC reserve on the Kaituna River, this would almost certainly be ruled out as prima facie incompatible with the purpose of the reserve (the Turitea Reserve is held and managed by the PNCC as a Local Purpose Reserve under the Reserves Act 1977, for the purposes of water supply and the protection of indigenous flora and fauna). So the PNCC has come up with the cunning plan of changing that purpose (as permitted under s24A of the Act) to allow it to also be used for renewable energy generation. Which immediately gets us into the second reason for being dubious: the whiff of corruption surrounding the process. The Palmerston North City Council will be receiving "milestone payments" from Mighty River Power at various stages of the project. They've already received $150,000 for signing a conditional contract, they'll reportedly get another $250,000 when they change the purpose of the reserve and its management plan to allow wind turbines, and even more if Mighty River gets resource consent. This completely undermines the integrity of the process, and makes it look like local government is for sale to the highest bidder. Even if the process was handled with scrupulous neutrality, the fact that the council stands to financially benefit if and only if it makes the "right" decision will mean that it could always be called into doubt. And that simply isn't good enough. Finally, there's the way they're playing fast and loose with the financial information. Council spokespeople have repeatedly claimed that the project will lead to a windfall for the city which will "keep rates down". At the same time, they are denying requests under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act 1987 for information on expected revenue on the basis that it is "commercially sensitive". Clearly, its not so sensitive that they can't gloat about it in public, and the whole thing smacks of an attempt to evade oversight.

If it wasn't located on a reserve, the project would probably be acceptable (a key question would be what that "scrub" would develop into if left alone). But given the location and the Council's approach, I will probably oppose it. There is plenty of space left on the Tararuas for windfarms, and I'd like to see it filled first before we start thinking about opening reserves for development.


i/s interested in your thoughts on this:

Posted by Anonymous : 8/14/2006 09:45:00 AM

Tony: I posted about that last week; follow the link above about the bay of Plenty Electricity scheme.

(the story was apparently supposed to run the same day Brash's press release was issued; it was delayed by other news)

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/14/2006 12:53:00 PM

Sorry! Thanks.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/14/2006 01:10:00 PM

"Corruption" has to involve some form of personal (financial, political) gain somewhere. The facts of this don't seem to support that: Mighty River Power (an SOE, so basically the People Of New Zealand) is paying the Palmerston North council (e.g. the people of Palmerston N) to use their land to generate power. This seems reasonable - though I do agree it should be more transparent.

The council is entitled to change the purpose of reserves and I'd argue that the invention of practical wind generation is reasonable cause for them to do this.

Posted by Rich : 8/14/2006 02:32:00 PM

Rich: this isn't royalty payments for using the land; those come later. This is a payment to the PNCC for making particular decisions. The money goes to the council rather than councilers, but the clear implication is that government is for sale - and that is something we simply shouldn't tolerate.

(Think of it this way: would the application of a party which refused to make such payments be treated the same way? No matter how scrupulous the Council is, the implication is that it will not. Which is why councils should avoid signing such contracts).

The council is indeed entitled to change the purpose of reserves (though they have to consult first). Whether they should or not depends on the ecological impact of what they're doing. And its quite clear that the reason they need to change the purpose is because the ecological impact would be judged as too high to be acceptable.

(Compare this with the Wellington Regional Council, which has allowed large areas of council land, including Belmont Regional Park, to be used for windfarming. This was a generally popular move, and one of the reasons it didn't see many objections from environmental groups is because it was a compatible use; the land in question is a farm, and they don't need to cut down trees to make room for turbines...)

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/14/2006 02:49:00 PM