OIAs reveal Government plans to circumvent rules for new coal mines

Documents released to Forest & Bird under the Official Information Act show the Government has been working to circumvent environmental protections and public involvement to enable new coal mining on conservation land.
 
In May, Forest & Bird revealed the Government was working on secret mining plans for the ecologically valuable Buller Plateau.
 
“The Government and mining companies are acutely aware that new mines are likely to be turned down under the normal consenting process, given the ecological significance of the area,” says Forest & Bird Chief Executive Kevin Hague.
 
Forest & Bird can reveal that for 18 months, the Government investigated creating ‘Special Economic Zones’ to push through contentious developments, including coal mining on the Buller Plateau.
 
Special economic zone legislation would give the Government powers to take conservation land and private land, provide tax breaks for favoured developers, and override overseas investment and immigration controls.
 
“We’re talking about zones where normal environmental, social and democratic safeguards don’t apply,” says Mr Hague.
 
The OIA documents show that officials from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment advised Ministers not to proceed with SEZs due to significant ‘social license’ issues and risk of litigation.
 
Despite these reservations, the documents make clear that Bill English (then Finance Minister), Steven Joyce and some regional and district councils favour special economic zones, and that Local Government New Zealand ‘remains strongly committed to the concept’.
 
“If this went ahead, anywhere the Government wanted to carry out development - they could. Roading through National Parks, irrigation dams, energy generation, aquaculture, controversial tourism developments - you name it,” says Mr Hague.
 
Special economic zones would provide the Government with further powers in addition to recent changes to the Resource Management Act that also include a reduction in opportunities for public participation and a new mechanism for fast tracking big projects.
 
“On the heels of their response to the Supreme Court’s Ruataniwha dam decision, this is yet another example of how far this Government is willing to go in overriding good process to push through their favourite development projects.”
 
“This Thursday, the government is launching its West Coast Economic Action Plan, and we wouldn’t be at all surprised if it contains some sort of favourable treatment for coal mining,” says Mr Hague.
 
Another workstream discussed in the OIA documents is a ‘single window’ for all necessary approvals for mining developments on the West Coast.
 
“The Government is seeking to give themselves the powers to push through controversial and damaging projects that would otherwise fail because they breach environmental limits.”
 
Another region that has been considered for a special economic zone is Southland where the government has been working to force aquaculture development into the waters surrounding Fiordland and Rakiura (Stewart Island) National Parks. A key site being investigated is Port Pegasus in Stewart Island, a location that the briefing paper describes as containing ‘some of the largest areas of near pristine marine habitat in New Zealand, with significant natural heritage values.’
 
“The Government is ‘picking winners’ rather than letting development projects be assessed on their merits and risks. This is Muldoon’s interventionist ‘Think Big’ model all over again,” says Mr Hague.
 

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