Key Points:

Criticism is growing over a secret agreement worth $175,000 the Department of Conservation signed with Meridian Energy over a controversial wind farm.

Radio New Zealand today reported a confidential document showed Meridian agreed to pay DoC the money in return for the department not opposing the Project Hayes windfarm near Ranfurly.

The Department has also signed another deal with Trustpower regarding the Mahinerangi wind farm but Trust Power will not say for how much.

The agreement with Meridian was signed in May 2007.

The parties agreed the government department would drop all its outstanding issues in relation to Project Hayes and adopt a neutral stance on the project.

The Green party attacked the confidential nature of the agreement this morning and the Environmental Defence Society is now adding its criticism.

The society's chairman Gary Taylor said he still has confidence in DoC as an advocate for the environment but the deal should not have been done in secret.

"What it's done in this situation is that it has negotiated some money for two conservation projects related to the wind farm and good on them for doing that and good on Meridian for offering it.

"The only slightly dodgy thing here is the lack of transparency and openness," Mr Taylor said.

He said there should not have been a secrecy clause in the agreement and they should have been open about what it was for.

Green Party co-leader Ms Fitzsimons was also critical about the secret nature of the deal.

She said the issue of bartering over developments was not new, and was an ongoing saga of development and conservation clashing.

While there were many options in terms of mitigating conservation damage, money changing hands in secrecy for silence was unacceptable.

"DoC is obviously going to do something with the money, and they're going to do something of environmental benefit," she said.

"But that should not have been a secret deal and it should not have been at the price of buying DoC's silence."

She said DoC had a large amount of information about the possible effects of certain projects and keeping out of Environment Court appeals meant hearings lacked vital data and were skewed.

No comment

Meridian Energy spokeswoman Claire Shaw said the company could not comment on the deal because the resource consent application was still before the Environment Court.

Meridian was asked if there were any other deals with DoC where money had changed hands but has not yet responded.

DoC's Otago Conservator Jeff Connell was standing by the agreement, Radio NZ said this morning. He said it would have been inappropriate to oppose the scheme when the Labour-led Government at the time supported it.

The minister for the Environment at the time the deal was made between Meridian and DoC was David Benson-Pope. He told nzherald.co.nz he had no recollection of the deal but said Cabinet decided there would be a "Government decision" on wind farms.

He said that was necessary otherwise one Government department could be fighting another in the Environment Court.

Mr Benson-Pope said there was nothing unusual about deals being made under the Resource Management Act but he was surprised to hear the deal was made in secret.

Current National Conservation Minister Tim Groser said he wants reports on the deal from DoC.

Mr Groser said the agreement had happened on the previous government's watch and the National Government would reserve its position until it had all the facts.

However, he said the issue had a broader context, which was that power providers were struggling to increase generation to keep pace with growing demand.

Part of that was because of difficulties in getting consents to start new projects, and plans were already in place, in the form of Resource Management Act (RMA) reforms, to try to improve the situation.

The Environment Court has been hearing submissions over a bid by Meridian to gain resource consents for the $2 billion, 176-turbine, wind farm on the Lammermoor Range in Central Otago.

Trust Power spokesman Graeme Purches said their deal with DoC was for better access to a reserve and an information kiosk.

He said the money has not yet changed hands but "over time" it will.

Mr Purches said some people are calling these deals bribery but that is wrong.

"It's about working with stake-holders to get a win-win. It's not about bribery. I think anyone who suggests you can bribe a Government department like DoC has got rocks in their head," Mr Purches said.

He said the amount of money would be similar to the figure that Meridian paid.

Mr Purches said the amount of money was kept confidential because Trust Power did not want its competitors to know how much its work cost.

He said it could also be used to "blackmail" the company.

"That happens. We've got a hydro scheme resource consent where there is one land owner saying: I'm never ever going to sell you my property, over my dead body.

"Well, that's what he's saying publicly but behind the scenes he wants twice the valuation for it," Mr Purches said.

- NZPA, NZ HERALD STAFF