Jen​ée Tibshraeny looks at how the tensions between economic growth and protecting the environment are exacerbated in the regions

By Jenée Tibshraeny

Dairy, oil and gas, forestry and fisheries have a few common denominators.

They are key exports that have historically brought a nice wad of cash to New Zealand.

They also pose significant threats to the environment - a factor that is taking some of the sheen off New Zealand’s black and white gold and preventing the oil and dairy industries from being as lucrative as they once were.

I believe the tensions between earning the big bucks and protecting the environment collide in the regions.

Why? Because this is where both the industries and the local authorities responsible for ensuring they comply with their resource consent conditions are based.

So what’s the problem? The farmers, oil and gas company employees, forestry workers and fishermen central to the prosperity of New Zealand, literally live next door to their regulators.

They’re family members, friends, in the same sports teams, and attend the same community events.

Yes, “regulators” are also people, but their personal connections to those they’re regulating are exacerbated in smaller parts of the country.

There are no “ivory towers” in regional New Zealand, enabling environmental regulators to be separated from their subjects. They are inter-linked

I admit there’s nothing new or unusual about this. Smaller communities have always been tighter knit. 

But when the stakes are high - industry being propelled and the environment being protected - it’s essential we put any conflicts of interest under the microscope and ensure systems are in place so the watchdogs can be as objective as humanly possible.

‘Politicised decision-making’

It is of grave concern that the Environmental Defence Society (EDS), with the help of the NZ Law Foundation, the Ministry for the Environment and Foundation Footprint, has found there to be “politicised decision-making and a lack of audit and oversight” among the watchdogs of our environment.

In a new report, ‘Last Line of Defence: Compliance, monitoring and enforcement of New Zealand’s environmental law’, EDS senior policy analyst Marie Brown highlights a number of weaknesses in our system and calls for significant improvements across a range of agencies.

While she has found a number of the problems lie with the Department of Conservation, Brown has also commented on local councils. She says:

Councils have, overall, received little support and guidance in undertaking their CME [compliance, monitoring and enforcement] role. Councils also appear to pay varying degrees of attention to this role.

The result of this is highly variable practice that ranges from professional and generally adequate through to demonstrably inadequate or indeed virtually absent…

Regional and unitary councils have generally improved significantly over the past decade in the way they administer their CME role. Increasing capacity, professionalisation and monitoring and reporting processes are evident...

However, despite these improvements, efforts are being undermined in some instances by the sometimes politicised nature of environmental enforcement at a regional level. However, this is not uniform, suggesting that putting the right people and procedures in place can minimise such interference…

District and city councils generally dedicate fewer resources to the enforcement role and tend to deploy them less effectively. Political involvement in enforcement decision-making is more likely to be formally enabled by district councils and this must be urgently remedied.

The dual economic development and environmental protection roles of councils appears to underpin these issues.

Yes, Brown works for a lobby group, but the assertions she makes in her 120 page report are serious and can’t be ignored.

I can’t personally comment on the level of “politicised decision making” that goes on in local councils, but can understand how councils’ “duel economic development and environmental protections roles” can be problematic.  

When being critical is seen as anti-development

As a journalist - a watchdog of a different sort - who has spent a couple of years living in New Plymouth, I have encountered these economic/environmental tensions when reporting on oil and gas issues.

I recall attending parties with my oil and gas engineer friends on Saturday nights, only to have people nervously laugh and retreat from the conversation when I said I was a journalist. It wasn’t until those who knew me better said things like, “Don’t worry, she’s all good”, that people relaxed.

My friends weren’t meaning to be offensive, but what they were trying to say was: “Don’t worry, Jenée isn’t carrying a bugging device and won’t go spreading nasty rumours about the industry through the big bad “media”.”

I was never going to report information I heard bandied about a party I was attending in my spare time. But naturally, if I heard something newsworthy, I might have followed it up through the correct channels (without involving mates) as I would in any circumstance.  

Not only did my “watchdog” label have its problems in social settings, but the fact Taranaki’s economic wellbeing was so heavily reliant on oil and gas made me feel like I was being anti-Taranaki or anti-development if I reported too many “bad” things about the industry.

How could I report anything that may jeopardise my friends and families’ incomes? What’s more - didn’t I enjoy using the local swimming pool, or attending events like Womad and the Festival of the Lights - all heavily sponsored by local oil and gas companies? There was an undercurrent of this sort of mentality in the community.

Furthermore, while Brown says the Taranaki Regional Council has fared pretty well in her study, I recall a council staff member telling me off the cuff that queries I made around breaches of resource consent conditions in regard to the oil and gas practice of land farming wasn’t "real news”.  

The pressure was subtle, yet evident as a newcomer to the very parochial region.  

A response to the EDS’s report required

I don’t know whether people who work in compliance teams in local councils feel similar pressures - particularly in small towns.  

And if, as Brown is suggesting, they succumb to these pressures, it is possible our regulators of financial markets and institutions, for example, may succumb to similar pressures from those they regulate.

I won’t get into this, but will vouch for how politicised decision-making from environmental regulators may be exacerbated in regional New Zealand where local economies aren’t as diversified as cities.

So, as we grapple with whether to invest in or abandon dying towns, and consider how to spread some of Auckland’s growth to other parts of the country, it's paramount we take the EDS’s comments on board.

Brown recommends (among other things) that councils’ policy/planning teams work more closely with their CME teams so that consent conditions are clear and can be effectively enforced.

She wants to see councils that don’t already have a “comprehensive cost-recovery approach for CME” get one so that ratepayers don’t have to pay for any increased resourcing.

She also suggests councils draw clear lines between governance and operations with “engagement protocols between staff and elected representatives”.

While those of you who read my work can judge how effective I am as a  “watchdog”, I believe it’s important we ensure our environmental watchdogs are as transparent as can be.

The strength of our industries and protection of our environment are integral to our economy, so any tensions between the two, exacerbated in the regions, need to be addressed.

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

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15 Comments

Only had a look over the contents page (as that's all that is available for download - not great if one wants to get civil society more involved!) and I didn't see any coverage of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment's role in this regard.

Under the Environment Act 1986, section 16(1)(c)(i) - one of the functions of the Commissioner is to: "investigate any matter in respect of which, in the Commissioner's opinion, the environment may be or has been adversely affected, whether through natural causes or as a result of the acts or omissions of any person or body, to an extent which the Commissioner considers warrants investigation"

Citizens should be able to forward complaints/concerns about failures by their regulators to monitor and enforce consent conditions if they (the citizens) have reasonable cause to believe condition(s) have either not been monitored, or have been monitored and have been breached but no action/prosecution has been undertaken by the regulator to ensure the consent holder remedies that breach.

Citizens too want to contribute to good practice environmental management - and the PCE's office is supposed to provide that avenue for raising concerns. In other words, the PCE is in the intent of Parliament, New Zealand's Environmental Watchdog!

Seems very odd that the PCE's Office (and role) isn't evident/named in that contents page. I checked two or three times - looking for them.

Am wondering, if you have a copy of the full report - whether the PCE's role is covered? Surely, the official watchdog by statute ought to be leading the watch - and in an apolitical (i.e., 'without fear or favour' is the expression used in the literature) manner as was the intent of Parliament.

Hi Kate, thanks for your interest in the issue. I have done a search through my copy of the full report and don't believe the PCE has been involved in the study. 

I don't get it.

Do you find that odd?

Here's the Environment Act 1986 - see section 16(1)(c)(i - iii)
http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1986/0127/latest/DLM99748.html

Surely if the report is all about how regulators are failing in their responsibility to adequately uphold the law - the first point of call for non-regulators (i.e., citizens) to take action in this regard is with the PCE? One would think at least in their recommendations - there would be some mention of the PCE's powers in this regard?

I'm puzzled - perhaps EDS did the report because they felt the PCE was not doing this watchdog aspect of the job? Even so, if they did one would imagine they would cover the Office's statutory role.

Oh well, guess I might need to spend $25.00 in order to better understand the intent of the report :-).

"So, as we grapple with whether to invest in or abandon dying towns, and consider how to spread some of Auckland’s growth to other parts of the country, ..."

The so called "regions" is where wealth is actually made ... using RESOURCES.
The so called growth in the centres (like Auckland) is fictitious ... a consumption based on the surplus generated through the use of resources.

The gap in the thinking is the problem. There is no growth without plundering resources ... and resources are never centralised ..

What I mean by "Auckland's growth" is largely "Auckland's population growth". And absolutely, the regions are where the resources are at, so that's where the money's at. This is all the more reason for us to make sure the regulation of those resources is robust and not politicised. 

The trouble is what you've just touched on - population. Human demands on a finite system. NZ's population is irrelevant - our resources are part of a global marketplace for resources.
The billions of worldwide townies dont see the link in their consumption back to the "regional" resources ... but at the same time they want their standard of living not only maintained but increased!!! When we are way in overshoot as it is.

To regulate resources to be truly sustainable you would need to go back to a demand level which would necessitate
- curbing fossil fuel use and mining of finite minerals
- massive reduction of human population
- collapsing the financial system - it requires growth in use of resources ...

Anything else ultimately doesn't stand scrutiny.

If it sounds depressing it is ... to quote someone else

"We have known or know about over population, over fishing, soil degradation, deforestation, species extinction, ocean acidification, sea level rise, atmospheric pollution, global warming and climate change, the importance of the ice caps and the green house affect on planet earth……..We would, could, should, can and our future depends on action but we effing won’t ...."

"Question num. 2. how to avoid overreach and collapse with 7.5 b people? Its not possible anymore. The energy and the raw materials needed are just too much. The environment is collapsing as we speak, and that just requires too much of everything, to keep 7.5 b people alive.. the money you dish out is actually the habitat our grandchildren would use.. But now that we have already used it.. nothings left for our grandchildren. No more habitat for them"

I would support a government introducing tax breaks (or similar carrots) based on the number of employees relocated out of Auckland.

Given that some City/District Councils are in breach of their consents themselves perhaps all prosecutions should be left to Regional Councils. ;-)

Listening to the Morning Report interview Gary Taylor from EDS says Regional Councils are doing better than he expected and City and District Councils are not doing so well.
http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/2018349...

According to Bill English, environmentalists and their regulations are the main cause of Auckland's housing crisis.
Definitely not immigration.

Perhaps Santa Claus may also be the cause of the housing crisis in Bill English's mind?

Not to mention, the Nats also noted that birds pooping in rivers is what causes them to be polluted. In a stroke of sheer coincidence, until the arrival of intensified dairy farming birds obviously happened to do their ablutions elsewhere.

So RickStrauss tells us what is the difference between a dairy farm and a intensified dairy farm that u preach ?

It's a carrying capacity calculation based on the soil type and other physical characteristics of the land. I particularly like the 'marginal cow' agricultural economics way of thinking about it;

http://www.agprodecon.org/node/9

There are three papers in that series.

That's the academic way of looking at it Kate. But how does RickStrauss define the difference? When he drives past a dairy farm what forms his view as to whether that farm is 'intensive' or not?

What if the council is the problem?

I believe that the Auckland Unitary Plan which prevents suburbs proximate to the city, whilst preferring low intensity exurban sprawl miles away from the city is environmentally destructive. The practice is creating unnecessary carbon dioxide pollution, by forcing thousands of households into driving long commutes.

Is there an oversight watchdog to which I might address this concern?