16 May 2024

Government's invite list shows fast-track process is flawed - Forest & Bird

6:57 am on 16 May 2024
Shane Jones

Shane Jones. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Forest & Bird says the inclusion of a company forced to pay costs by the Environment Court on the list of companies the government sent fast-track application information to shows the process is fundamentally flawed.

It has also raised concerns about the power that ministers could have, after it was revealed Regional Development Minister Shane Jones dined with the company's deputy chair and failed to report it.

Jones, along with RMA Reform Minister Chris Bishop and Transport Minister Simeon Brown, is one of three ministers which will get final sign-off on fast-track projects.

Newsroom reported Jones dined with Stevenson Group's deputy chair Barry Bragg in February.

It also obtained, under the Official Information Act, a letter Bragg sent Bishop following the dinner, indicating Jones had suggested he write to Bishop and ask him to consider the Te Kuha coal project on the West Coast be listed in the fast-track bill.

Jones has had to update his ministerial diary to include the dinner, which also included two other attendees from the mining industry.

Forest & Bird general counsel Peter Anderson said the episode showed why ministers should not be given final sign-off on projects.

"Lobbying and that kind of stuff goes on all the time. But the light that gets shone on it happens when you go through a proper consenting process, where the public can look at the details of the application, see what's happening, and make informed comments about it."

The auditor-general has already urged Parliament's environment committee to change the bill to better manage conflicts of interest, encouraging it to consider whether the bill's transparency and accountability arrangements were proportionate to the discretion it afforded the ministers.

Stevenson (and the company which holds the Te Kuha permit, Rangitira Developments Limited) was on the list Bishop released last month of companies that had been provided information on how to apply for consents. The Te Kuha project itself was not listed, as the list did not contain any specific projects.

Earlier in May, the Environment Court released a costs decision against Stevenson and the Te Kuha project, awarding $113,000 to Forest & Bird and the Department of Conservation $103,000. It had earlier overturned a consenting decision for the project.

Te Kaha's project delivery board chair Barry Bragg

Barry Bragg. Photo: RNZ / Adam Burns

The court had ruled efforts to boost the economic and social wellbeing of the community and mitigate the effects of mining activities did not outweigh the threat to biodiversity, and that resource consent should not be granted.

Anderson said companies that have been through the courts, such as Stevenson or Trans Tasman Resources, should not be eligible for the fast-track process.

"Any project has gone through a rigorous public process, for example the Environment Court, or… the [Environmental Protection Authority], should be ineligible for consideration under the fast-track," he said.

"If you've gone through the process and you've got declined, you don't get another crack."

He suggested the bill should go back to square one, or the government could at least make amendments to remove ministerial sign-off and adhere to court decisions.

"Decisions around the fast-track are about a faster track, not an easier ride," Anderson said.

Bishop has often stressed the inclusion of a company on the list does not mean they will submit a project, nor did it mean they would receive any preferential treatment. He has also said the government is open to changes following the select committee process, including leaving decisions to the expert panel.

Bishop said he would not be commenting on someone else's diary. Jones also declined to comment.

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