As part of its “reform” of the Resource Management Act (RMA), the National Government is proposing creation of an “Environmental Protection Agency” (EPA).
The full scope and authority of this body is not yet clear. Hopefully a robust and unhurried debate over its functions and powers will occur. So far, the one role of EPA that has been proposed is to decide which major projects of national significance would be considered by special boards of inquiry … in theory to expedite the environmental review process.
Indeed, the thrust of the entire package of RMA “reform” proposals is to expedite approval of development and infrastructure proposals, and limit community participation in the decision-making process. So far, there doesn’t appear to be much concern from Government about strengthening environmental protection.
Presumably the Government will examine best practices in other countries having a central government EPA, such as the United States, as it refines its concept of what a NZ EPA would do.
And in that regard, hopefully Environment Minister Nick Smith will read this article about the US EPA from yesterday’s New York Times.
The article describes how the US EPA has created and publicised an online “EPA Fugitives” list to put a spotlight on serious violators of environmental laws and regulations who are hiding from prosecution.
As reported by the NYTimes:
“The EPA’s list, complete with mug shots of the fugitives, was established in December to try to draw attention to serious environmental crimes.
“We take them seriously, and there are serious consequences,” said Doug Parker, deputy director of the agency’s criminal investigation division.
Environmental crimes become more common as regulations grow stronger, Mr. Parker added. “All these crimes are driven by money,” he said. “When a regulatory scheme is developed, it invariably puts a cost on people. People will use criminal means to avoid compliance, either saving a lot of money or … making a lot of money.”
In NZ, these folks would get a “stern talking to” on the theory that they’ll then do better, shape up, not make such a “mistake” again. Because deep down, they’re nice guys.
But going forward, it will not get cheaper or easier to comply with necessary environmental protection measures in New Zealand. The stresses on the environment are becoming more severe, the public is becoming more aware of environmental threats, and the bar will be raised by central government (imposing national standards, over hysterical resistance from local government) … sooner or later.
When that happens, the regulatory and enforcement roles of a NZ EPA will take centre stage. Right now, however, one cannot have a lot of confidence that the National-led Government will empower very much the “Protection” aspect of its Environmental Protection Agency.
As the days go by, it appears that in the National world view, the environment is more a nuisance or hindrance than an asset to be both protected and “exploited” as the single most positively defining attribute of the New Zealand “brand.”
We’ll know National is serious about an Environmental Protection Agency when it adds a “EPA Fugitives” list to the agency’s functions, and the enforcement powers and personnel to make that protection real. Until then, we should all remain wary of National’s intentions.
P.S. For an excellent critique of the Government’s proposed RMA reforms, read this submission prepared by BayWatch.
And note also that our local authorities, like the Hastings Council and the Regional Council, have prepared their own submissions on RMA reforms without one iota of public consultation. If you think their submissions were prompted by a desire to protect the rights and interests of citizen groups like BayWatch or Future Ocean Beach or Cape Kidnappers Protection Society, guess again. Councils’ submissions are all about making life easier for councils. And we all know where that leads!