The Government's plan to comprehensively overhaul the Resource Management Act — or at least set in train a process for doing so — is all the more welcome for being so horribly overdue.
The Cabinet paper released this week contains this masterly piece of droll understatement: "There is broad frustration with the quality of RMA plans and processes, the interaction between the RMA and other legislation, the coherence and effectiveness of national direction, and inconsistent engagement with Māori."
Environment Minister David Parker, announcing the review of the resource management system, was more direct: "It takes too long, it costs too much and it hasn't protected the environment."
In addition to the current regime's failings with respect to urban planning and the housing crisis (as analysed by the Productivity Commission, for example) and the dire state of waterways (the Environmental Defence Society) it also poses obstacles to addressing climate change.
The RMA review panel's draft terms of reference include ensuring that the RMA aligns with the purposes and processes outlined in the Zero Carbon Bill now before Parliament.
That legislation will be the main framework for reducing emissions and for adapting to the impacts of climate change.
The intersection between it and RMA reform will primarily be about adaptation rather than mitigation, Parker said.
"For example, with low lying areas of land the need to plan very long term for what you do there to make sure you don't put more assets at risk, to have a fair compact between central and local government and private interests."
Nevertheless, the Interim Climate Change Committee's report released last week on the potential for accelerating the electrification of transport and industrial heat discusses ways in which the resource management system as it stands could hamper making the most of New Zealand's renewable energy resources, and therefore the mitigation of climate change.
With respect to the hydro system, the committee acknowledges the tension between maximising the use of the resource for electricity generation on the one hand, and on the other, the environmental values in the rivers and lakes involved.
Brian Fallow: Emissions plan a step in the right direction
Iwi and others consider existing consents give preference to power generation at the expense of ecological and cultural values and call for more rigorous regulation of minimum flows, at the expense of the flexibility and capacity of what is the mainstay of the electricity system.
The committee sees an "untenable" policy uncertainty arising from conflicting national policy statements under the RMA governing renewable energy generation on the one hand and freshwater management on the other.
It also sees RMA issues for wind power, which it expects to be the lowest cost and therefore dominant form of new renewable generation out to 2035.
The climate committee worries about the implications of recent legal judgments, including one by the Supreme Court, which interprets section 6(b) of the RMA "in a clear-cut way so that adverse effects are not to be avoided, remedied or mitigated, but simply avoided."
This is of particular relevance to wind power, the committee concludes, but also to transmission infrastructure for that matter, because the visual impacts of wind turbines and pylons are impossible to avoid.
"Turbines must stand tall and visible to catch the wind," it says. "If greater changes to landscape and visual amenity are unable to be tolerated, New Zealand will struggle to reduce its emissions, given the core role of wind generation as a major supplier of affordable and abundant electricity."
Those issues will be within scope for the review, Parker said. Consenting challenges needed to be overcome if enough new renewable capacity was to be available to decarbonise transport and industrial heat.
"In truth those can be fixed without this holistic reform to the RMA. I have already had discussions with the Minister of Energy for a spatial planning approach to windfarms, to try and get ahead in the consenting of wind farms."
The Interim Climate Change Committee points out that 2000MW of wind generation capacity has already been consented (on top of the 700MW already up and running). It has not yet been built because electricity demand has been relatively flat for the past 10 or more years — testimony to energy efficiency gains.
But the committee points to the challenges of extending or varying existing consent conditions. "For example most consents contain specific conditions (such as rotor size) or windfarm site design (such as specific turbine placement) that go quickly out of date due to rapid changes in technology." Obtaining variations to those consents can be costly and time-consuming.
Even more complex and costly are the RMA processes for geothermal developments, but the committee says the processes are generally seen as necessary and appropriate given the importance of the resources being safeguarded.
Regulators have to consider not only the sustainability of the resource, but impacts on freshwater and biodiversity as well.
So one concern is that a proposed national policy statement on biodiversity could constrain further geothermal development — something New Zealand will need a lot more of if it is to achieve the millions of tonnes of emissions avoided by the accelerated electrification of transport and industrial heat.
What all this illustrates is that RMA reform is not just about how to balance the competing claims of environmental protection and economic development, but the tensions between different environmental values, especially when one is local and the other is global.
In crafting a regime capable of doing that, the review panel to be chaired by former Court of Appeal Justice Tony Randerson will need the wisdom of Solomon.