On October 1st, New Zealand’s new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) went live, a creation of the first phase of the National Government’s “reforms” of the Resource Management Act (RMA).

We won’t know the full scope of authority of the NZ EPA until a second wave of promised RMA reforms emerges from Parliament. For now, the chief power of the EPA is its ability to process and expedite resource consent applications for projects of “national significance.”

Ironically, on the same day, as reported here by the New York Times, the US Environmental Protection Agency took dramatic, unprecedented action to curb US greenhouse gas emissions by executive fiat (i.e., without waiting for the US Congress to pass global warming legislation).

The US EPA, reversing a position it took during the Bush Administration, had already declared, in the Obama regime, that greenhouse emissions are “pollutants” governed by existing legislation. And now, therefore, EPA will use its enforcement authority to require 14,000 of America’s largest coal-burning power plants, refineries and other large industrial complexes (those emitting 25,000 tonnes or more per year) to adopt best-available technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These facilities account for 70% of America’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The rules must go through months of drafting and public review, and possibly litigation, but do not require Congressional approval. They could take effect as early as 2011.

Some lessons here.

For Americans, what a difference a President makes! Same EPA, same underlying legislation. Different attitude. Different interpretation. Hugely different outcome for the environment.

For Kiwis, first, here is a stark example, different governmental systems notwithstanding, of how dramatic action to address global warming can be taken when there is political will to act.

Second, the US EPA action causes one to wonder just how powerful — or not — the National Government’s EPA will eventually turn out to be. As reported in the National Business Review, Environment Minster Nick Smith said yesterday that:

“…the EPA would start out as a statutory office within the Environment Ministry but added that cabinet would consider possibly expanding its powers further down the track. ‘The government’s broader intent is for the EPA to be the national regulator on environmental issues and the Ministry for the Environment to be a smaller policy agency,’ Dr Smith said.”

As the US EPA example illustrates, whether a powerful EPA is a force for strong environmental protection or a major instrument for thwarting environmental goals all depends upon which Government is sitting at the controls!

An EPA armed, for example, with stringent water quality standards, and determined to see that they were vigorously enforced across New Zealand, might be welcome. But an EPA that views itself as chiefly an expediter of development is a different beast.

“Phase 2” RMA amendments will soon emerge and begin to tell us what kind of EPA the National Government has in mind … and where the power balance will be as between that agency and our regional councils.

Stay tuned.

Tom Belford

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