Environment Minister David Parker

David Parker’s resource management shortcuts that he announced yesterday run against the current of much of what is in the Natural and Built Environments Bill and the Spatial Planning Bill.

In fact, much of what was in his proposed National Policy Standard on Renewable Energy looks likely to end up being exactly what critics of the RMA replacement legislation have been asking for at the Select Committee.

And his plans to make wind farms easier to consent addressed directly one of National’s loudest complaints about the legislation.

Even Parker’s admission that the moves to make renewable energy easier to consent would be best done with a National Policy Standard now rather than wait for the legislation to make its possible decade-long journey to becoming fully operational pointed to the ponderous process that is being used to navigate through the new legislation’s implementation.

The most forthright of the energy companies during the Select Committee process has been Contact, who have argued that the legislation’s requirement that local authorities set out permitted areas “that are appropriate for developing, using, or extracting natural resources, including generating power” was unrealistic.

“Attempting to identify all generation infrastructure for the next 30 years will be impossible,” their submission said.

“Site identification is a constant and careful balance between a number of factors, including access to land, impact on communities, impact on the environment, quality of the resource, access to transmission/distribution networks, technological advances, changes in the cost of generation, and more.

“Many of these factors change dramatically over short periods of time.”

Driving this concern is the projected requirement for new wind-generated power over the next 30 years.

Meridian Energy told the Committee that the industry needed to build an equivalent to Wellington’s 62-turbine West Wind farm every five months each year to 2050 if we were to meet the net-zero carbon goal by then.

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Like Contact, they identified the new legislation’s inclusion of environmental limits as a major obstacle to this.

The limits are not defined; they will be set by Environment Minister through the National Planning Framework once the legislation is passed.

There are two views of the limits.

Contact Energy said many, if not most, large-scale renewable energy projects would have an impact on the environment and might not meet new environmental limits.

“Wind farms and-or their access and transmission requirements can result in the loss of rare indigenous birds or encroach on significant natural areas,” their submission said.

“Given the scale of development required, some new facilities will inevitably need to be within significant biodiversity areas and the very broadly defined ‘places of national importance’.

“If developers cannot secure exemptions, consenting certain projects may become impossible, leaving sub-optimal sites that will not be as efficient, come to market as quickly, and increase the cost of electricity.”

However, the Parliamentary Commission for the Environment, Simon Upton, has called for a more explicit legislative definition of what the limits might be.

“In my view, Parliament should give environmental limits more substantive content in primary legislation by clarifying that their ambition is, where necessary, restorative,” he said.

“My impression is that most New Zealanders today would say that we shouldn’t let the state or health of these resources deteriorate further and that where possible, we should be trying to improve their state.”

“This would avert the possibility that a Minister could interpret the clause to support whatever trade-off between the protection and use of the natural environment he or she for the moment favoured.”

Parker is open to the charge that yesterday’s announcement did precisely that.

But at a media briefing on his plans, he was frank about what he intended the new National Policy Standard could achieve.

“Where you have outstanding landscapes, for example, which are seen to be required to be protected to the maximum extent, it has effectively prevented wind farms from being developed in places that we need them,” he said.

“Now, that’s  not to say that every significant landscape should have a wind farm on it, but it does say that there are some distractions from visual amenity that we’re going to have to put up with as a country if we’re going to get the renewable generation that we need.”

 “Everyone needs to do better.

“They can’t just say, not here, over there.”

The whole question of how the new legislation will carry out its requirement to “give effect” to the principles of  Te Tiriti o Waitangi is already controversial.

The Natural and Built Environments Bill provides for an unspecified number of Manu Whenua to be appointed to the Regional Planning Committees, which will draw up the regional plans.

And the Bill’s purposes include an acknowledgement of te Oranga o te Taiao,  which it defines as “a te ao Māori concept that speaks to the health of the natural environment, the essential relationship between the health of the natural environment and its capacity to sustain life, and the interconnectedness of all parts of the environment.”

“Importantly, the purpose does not prohibit use and development, but it will affect how use and development is undertaken,” the Bill says.

It is a new legal concept, and National’s RMA spokesperson, Chris Bishop, has argued that it will see planning decisions constantly end up in the Courts until it is more precisely defined.

In contrast to his easing up of restrictions for pure environmental matters, Parker has proposed that the National Policy Standard for Renewable Energy could adopt a more rigorous approach to acknowledging Maori considerations in renewable energy consents.

His background paper said it should consider and provide for Māori interests, over and above existing provisions in the RMA and in Treaty Settlements.

“Through engaging with iwi and Māori on these proposals, we are seeking feedback on how an amended national direction could better provide for Māori interests,” the paper said.

“We will expect councils to engage early with Maori to identify which are the most precious sites and to work with them to design things in a way that least affects them,” he said in the briefing.

“But we’re not saying that Maori have a right of veto.”

The proposals announced yesterday now go out for consultation.

They will affect existing National Policy Standards on electricity generation and transmission and the National Environmental Standard for Electricity Transmission Activities.

Central to the proposals is a new National Environmental Standard for Renewable Electricity Generation.

Under the Resource Management Act, National Environmental or Policy Standards override or “trump” local planning rules.

They will be carried into the new legislation through a National Planning Framework document which will govern local plans.

The consultation and drafting is expected to run through to the end of the year, with the implementation of the final Standards next year.