On Wednesday, MP Nick Smith gave a sweeping speech to the Nelson Rotary in his home constituency. He focused mostly on issues in his two ministerial portfolio areas … the environment and local government.

With respect to the environment, Smith focused on protection of NZ’s ocean area, freshwater management, and the Emissions Trading Scheme. Here are excerpts of Minister Smith’s remarks on environmental issues. Yesterday we posted on his local government reform comments. His full speech is here.

Nick Smith speech excerpts:

“My first environmental priority this year is to pass and implement new laws to provide for the environmental protection of New Zealand’s huge ocean area. This space of 650 million hectares or 20 times our land mass is known technically as the Exclusive Economic Zone and Extended Continental Shelf.

The issue is that the jurisdiction of the RMA ceases at the 12 mile limit of the territorial sea, yet we need to have a robust system for assessing the environmental impacts of activities in the ocean environment.

We need look no further than the Gulf of Mexico disaster in 2010 as to what can go wrong. A key conclusion of the subsequent inquiry was that an independent regulator, separate from the government agency responsible for promoting mineral exploration, needed to robustly check the environment risks. That is just what we are proposing with the Environmental Protection Authority.

Balance is at the core of the Government’s approach to this issue. There are significant economic opportunities for New Zealand from minerals in New Zealand’s EEZ, the 4th largest in the world. This legislation is about taking these opportunities in an environmentally responsible way.

A second environmental priority is improving management of freshwater. Few New Zealanders appreciate how blessed we are in having the second highest per capita water resource in the world, nor how much of our export and energy industries depend on that resource.

In the last term of Government, we established the Land and Water Forum which produced by consensus across 58 groups a way forward for improving how we manage water. This year my priority is making progress on getting clearer rules for farmers on what they need to do to better protect water quality as well as progressing clean-up plans for a number of significant rivers and lakes that had over previous decades become polluted.

I am also proposing a new Environment Reporting Act that will improve the integrity of New Zealand’s green brand.

We are the only OECD country that does not have a statutory system of nationwide environment reporting. This is out of step with the importance of the environment to our national identity, economy and quality of life.

A good practical example of this problem is our water quality. There is no consistent system of measurement. It is very difficult to ascertain if it is getting worse or where it is improving and this just compounds the political difficulties in improving management. My aim is to establish a nationwide five yearly report that ranks New Zealand’s rivers and lakes from the cleanest to the dirtiest and identifies which ones are improving, and which are deteriorating. This will help focus communities on better managing this precious resource. The intended author of the report is the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment to ensure its independence and integrity.”

Regarding National’s approach to our nation’s ocean area, whether the Government’s legislation will be adequate to the urgent need to truly protect our ocean environment is debatable. Here is the critique of the Environmental Defence Society (press release, full submission), in my opinion, NZ’s most expert environmental voice.

With respect to water management, we’ll need to wait and see where the Land and Water Forum lands on key issues … and then how the National Government reacts if the measures and standards recommended fail to strike the right, using National’s favourite term, “balance” (i.e., are too tough for the farm lobby).

But I’m all for Minister Smith’s Environmental Reporting Act. The fact is, there’s no consistency whatsoever in how our freshwater quality is measured. Clear standards and stipulated measurement methodologies can’t come a moment too soon for Hawke’s Bay, where, adding to existing water quality contention, our Regional Council is considering adding 20,000 hectares of new irrigated farming in the Tukituki catchment.

As we offered yesterday, Minister Smith, you have an open invitation to speak in Hawke’s Bay. I guarantee we can pack the house.

Tom Belford

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