Monday, May 14, 2007

Against RMA call-ins

Ever since Project Aqua, energy companies have been arguing that renewable energy projects be called in under the RMA, arguing that the national importance of their profits more electricity generation should override petty local concerns about the environment or quality of life. There's another example of this today, with Meridian Energy complaining that the government has refused to call in its 630 MW Central Otago windfarm, Project Hayes.

Meridian's "justification" is that the Central Otago District Council is "dragging its feet" over hearing the application, but this simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Meridian applied for consent in November 2006, and the CODC is currently holding hearings, which are expected to last a couple more weeks. Six months to notify, submit, and process submissions is not onerous or unusual, and certainly should not be unexpected - it's just the basic length of time the process takes for a major project. Instead, Meridian's demands for a call-in seem to be driven more by the fact that their project has significant local opposition and has received an adverse report from the CODC's planning consultant panning its visual impact and recommending that it not proceed. So, rather than fight for their project on its merits, they're forum shopping instead. The Minister is right to refuse this request. But are they right to be so reluctant to use their call-in powers?

IMHO, yes. The RMA lays out a process by which local communities can assess the environmental impacts of a project against local and national priorities, with the Environment Court as a backstop to ensure that the process is fair. We should no more short-circuit this process by sending applications directly to the Environment Court or Minister's desk than we should short-circuit the process of criminal trials by sending cases direct to the Court of Appeal. It's not their function, and it removes an important safeguard from the system (it also raises significant barriers to public participation in the process, which was the very point of the RMA, and precisely why the anti-democratic right are so in favour of it). If central government is concerned that local bodies are not paying sufficient attention to issues they consider important, then the Act already lays out a process by which they can make them do so, in the form of National Policy Statements. Alternatively, they can amend the Act to add to the list of matters which must be considered (as they have already done over climate change and renewable energy).

More generally, use of the call-in mechanism, even in the form of choosing which projects get "fast-tracked" to the Environment Court, raises the spectre of favouritism and corruption. This is fine to a generation of energy company executives raised on the Clyde Dam and the National Development Act, but it ought to be anathema to the rest of us. I take it as a bedrock principle that projects should be assessed on their merits, not on who has (or can buy) the ear of the Minister. The law should do likewise.


A councils accountability is basically to its local electorate. This means that policy is strongly driven to preserving individual amenity and landscape values.

Local councils don't get any kudos for helping reduce fossil fuel usage and aren't generally criticised if they don't - that falls on central government.

A compromise would be to set an annual quota in gigawatts for renewable energy approvals, based on land area and distance from power sinks. Each local body would then have to meet quota or have all renewable energy applications called in until they were back on track.

And if Meridian makes more money, it primarily goes to the taxpayer - I guess management might get paid a bit more - but it isn't any more reasonable to say that they are driven by personal gain than to accuse doctors or policemen of the same thing.

Posted by Rich : 5/14/2007 02:57:00 PM

Aqua wasn't shut down by the RMA, it was ditched after they finally did some test drills and found the whole concept was physically impossible. The lower Waitaki valley is gravel down a long way, and simply can't support structures that size.

Meanwhile, Hayes has turned out to be smack dab in the middle of a bunch of rich folk's holiday homes, and they've spent a great deal of money promoting some pretty spurious claims about it.

As much as Meridian are usually full of crap, they might have a point here. But if so the RMA process should come out on their side anyway.

Rich: There's councils have received kudos for getting up wind farms. Some people just plain like them more than others, and it's not unreasonable for them to go where they're liked. Otago's already got a lot of dams.

Posted by tussock : 5/14/2007 04:54:00 PM