Gary Taylor: Economic reforms threaten natural treasures

If we are to have more mining and oil and gas exploration, we need higher environmental standards, not lower. Photo / Greenpeace, Malcolm Pullman
If we are to have more mining and oil and gas exploration, we need higher environmental standards, not lower. Photo / Greenpeace, Malcolm Pullman

Economic growth need not sacrifice the environment, writes Gary Taylor.

Energy Minister Phil Heatley said last week the Government wanted to speed up environmental approvals for mining. He wants to bypass local authorities and the Environment Court so projects of "regional significance" are determined by a minister-appointed board of inquiry.

Just last month, the Government's technical advisory group on the Resource Management Act recommended gutting sections of the act that were intended to provide an environmental safety net.

Currently, the RMA sets out matters of national importance which decision-makers must recognise and provide for. These include protecting such treasures as our undeveloped coastline, outstanding landscapes and significant indigenous vegetation.

Under the advisory group's recommendations, any reference to protecting these areas will be removed. In addition, their value can be outweighed by the "significant benefits" to be derived from development.

So the prospective changes to the RMA are likely to considerably weaken New Zealand's environmental standards.

But that is not all. The RMA applies seawards only out to 12 nautical miles. Beyond that is the Exclusive Economic Zone, which lacks environmental controls and has very rich minerals and petrochemical resources.

There is a new bill setting up an environmental regime in our EEZ for offshore oil, gas and mining, passing through Parliament in the next couple of weeks.

The bill "seeks to achieve a balance between the protection of the environment and economic development". But where will this balance lie? How will the easily quantifiable benefits of mining activity be weighed up against the risk of environmental damage? Or against the loss of yet-to-be-discovered marine species?

There is little guidance on this in the bill. It lists a range of matters which the Environmental Protection Authority must take into account when considering an application. But they are not prioritised. They include "the economic benefit to New Zealand" as well as "the importance of protecting biological diversity".

So the bill embraces the same approach as the proposed RMA reforms: no clear direction, no priorities, no environmental bottom lines - just greenwash that won't distinguish high-risk, bad developments from good.

These reforms are based on wrong thinking. They will take New Zealand in the opposite direction to where we should be going.

If we are to have more mining and oil and gas exploration, we need higher environmental standards, not lower. Otherwise we will encourage companies to adopt shoddy practices, increase the risk that things will go disastrously wrong, and threaten New Zealand's environmental reputation.

The approach to another economic priority for the Government - increased dairy production - is more nuanced and instructive. There, the Minister, David Carter, understands that environmental values are important for New Zealand's brand and way of life.

Yes, he wants to expand activity where he can, but he acknowledges the need for limits. He is supporting the work of the Land and Water Forum, which is making good progress towards an improved decision-making framework for fresh water.

Even with the establishment of an environmental bottom line, a combination of innovation on the farm and product development and marketing could still see both improved water quality and greater returns from the sector. New production models can maintain or improve output while reducing the environmental footprint.

Given the dependence we have on the primary sector for our economic welfare, it's important to acknowledge it as part of the mix of economic activity and to work with the sector to improve environmental performance. That's the theme of the Environmental Defence Society's conference Growing Green.

In the medium term though, we should be diversifying our economic base and moving towards a future that embraces new technology, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and creates high-value jobs.

Pure Advantage and the Government's own Green Growth Taskforce acknowledged that. Mining, oil and gas are high-risk, low-value sectors that are not sustainable in the long term. A strategy that emphasises them is very limited and not the way New Zealand needs to go.

But if we are to have more resource exploitation, at least in the short term, we need a regulatory regime that will ensure we don't sacrifice environmental quality.

If we can achieve that standard for our farming sector then we can achieve it for the resources sector too. This is a time for clear-headed thinking, not getting carried away with a gold-rush mentality.

Gary Taylor is chairman of the Environmental Defence Society and convenor of its conference that starts in Auckland today, called Growing Green: Transformation of Farming, Forestry and Fishing.

- NZ Herald

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