What’s up DOC?

It makes no sense for government departments to hire lawyers to do battle in court with the lawyers hired by another government agency. The biggest winners in that game are lawyers.

Nor does it make sense for a government department to be arguing the toss in court to frustrate a matter of government policy.

But when Meridian Energy secretly slips money to DOC to buy its silence…

Then we are on to a hot political story which yet another government agency – Radio New Zealand – has flushed into the open.

Astonishingly, former Labour Energy Minister, Conservation Minister and Central Otago MP Chris Carter –on Noon to Noon – professed to have had no knowledge of the deal (not the first involving resource consents, Green co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons claimed).

In a nutshell, Radio NZ reported that DOC pulled its punches at the Environment Court hearing of submissions over Meridian’s bid to gain resource consents for the $2 billion, 176-turbine, wind farm on the Lammermoor Range in Central Otago.

The Department of Conservation has a secret deal with Meridian Energy in return for DoC’s silence over a controversial wind farm in Central Otago.

A confidential document obtained by Radio New Zealand shows Meridian Energy agreed to pay DoC $175,000 in return for DoC not opposing the Project Hayes windfarm near Ranfurly.

The agreement was signed in May 2007 and called for a range of matters to be addressed.

The parties agreed DoC would drop all its outstanding issues in relation to Project Hayes and adopt a stance of neither for nor against the project.

DoC previously opposed wind farms such as development of 75-turbines in Hawke’s Bay.

In his days as a journalist, former Radio NZ political editor Al Morrison would have bust his ass to break that story.

He now is the head of DOC and this morning (at blog-posting time) he was keeping his silence.

A bad look.

Meridian Energy refused to comment on the deal, too.

It was left to Otago Conservator Jeff Connell to explain to Morning Report it would have been completely inappropriate for DoC to oppose the windfarm, when the Government at the time supported it.

A whole-of-government approach to the clash between development and conservation raises one set of questions.

Secret deals raise bigger ones. If everything is above board, why would DOC and Meridian want to keep it quiet?

But it’s a matter of public record that Meridian Energy and DOC signed a memorandum of understanding in December 2005 to improve the way the two government outfits work together.

Meridian Energy Chief Executive Keith Turner and DOC director-general Hugh Logan signed the agreement today, which they say will provide foundations for more open and consistent communication between Meridian and DOC, and ensure that each work together as smoothly as possible.

Dr Turner said that Meridian Energy recognised that the department is a key stakeholder in its existing assets and also its development options.

DOC’s boss then was Hugh Logan. He seemed pretty happy about the Memorandum of Understanding.

“Having a formal basis for a relationship sets out the interests and obligations of both parties, with an understanding to try to work together wherever possible,” said Mr Logan.

The focus on cooperation and communication means that DOC can concentrate on ensuring the protection of values on public conservation land, while Meridian can continue to investigate and develop renewable energy sources.

“The idea is that we can work together toward outcomes that are good for conservation of our natural resources, as well as being beneficial for the economy.”

The MoU contains protocols for operation of existing energy generation assets, as well as for the investigation of new wind and hydro power projects. It also sets out procedures for information sharing on DOC’s planning and policy development and procedures for sponsorships.

Great. Cooperation between fox and chicken.

And before too long – guess what?

Natural Resource Solutions, a consultancy based in Taupo, was advising it was getting in on the action

Meridian Energy has been investigating potential wind farm sites around NZ and has identified the Ahipara region of Northland as a region of strong natural wind resource ideal for power generation.

Meridian Energy approached DoC to discuss the possible development of a wind farm on the Epakauri Conservation area. Subsequently other wind farm developers also approached DoC.

As a result DOC undertook a tender process among a number of potential wind farm developers to determine whom would be entitled to apply for a concession application to develop a wind farm on the area.

Meridian Energy was the successful tenderer and has applied to DoC for a concession to develop and operate the wind farm.

Natural Resource Solutions was assisting DoC to assess the concession application.

As to the latest revelations, Alf hastens to point out that the murky stuff happened under the previous government.

Tim Groser, Minister of Conservation in the new (and better) government, has done the right thing by calling for full information before he comments.

He properly pointed out that the government is trying to grapple with serious issues around electricity generation as consumption rises, and about the resource consents process, which is to be streamlined.

He affirmed that the Key team will take a whole-of-government approach to development, too.

That will piss off the greenies.

But let’s not overlook that a whiff of something odd in DOC’s approach to the Otago windfarm showed up in the ODT last Thursday –

A Government submission supporting Meridian Energy’s proposed $2 billion Project Hayes wind farm stunted a Department of Conservation submission opposing the proposal, an Environment Court appeal hearing on the development was told yesterday.

Otago Conservation Board member Garry Nixon, of Alexandra, was reported as saying DOC made a submission on Project Hayes after it was publicly notified in 2006, although parts of the submission were restricted so as not to conflict with government support for the project.

The ODT report cited a letter dated September 5, 2006, from former Conservation Minister David Benson-Pope to Chris Carter.

It stated the “all-of-government” submission on Project Hayes purposely did not include matters to do with landscape or local effects.

“I [David Benson-Pope] have asked that the submission be restricted to the matters of most importance nationally, which we see as renewable energy, wind power, and transmission issues.

“I do not intend that the submission will cover any local effects, as these are best canvassed in submissions made by local interests,” the letter said.

The Southland Times was on the case, too.

The Department of Conservation kept quiet its concerns about the $2 billion Project Hayes windfarm to avoid contradicting the Government, an Otago Conservation Board spokesperson said.

Speaking as a witness at the Project Hayes hearing in Queenstown yesterday, Dr Garry Nixon said the department had not included a landscape assessment in its submissions because it meant to avoid undermining the Government’s supporting submission.

The board was told a department landscape assessment would force it to oppose the majority of the wind turbines with no room for compromise with Meridian Energy, he said.

The conservation board was surprised because the department had pushed the Central Otago District Council for greater protection of areas above 900m for years, he said. Two thirds of Project Hayes’ 176 wind turbines would be situated above 900m, on the Lammermoor Range.

Jeff Connell confirmed to the Southland Times that a landscape assessment was not included because it would have forced the department to oppose the project with “little wiggle” room.

“It would have been inconsistent with the submission by the Ministry for the Environment so we didn’t go there,” he said.

Opposition was only lodged in areas where there was scope for compromise without radically changing the project, he said.

Alf reckons today is a great day to be in Wellington – at least, it is for those who get their jollies from watching the wiggling of bureaucrats under fire.

2 Responses to What’s up DOC?

  1. bustedblonde says:

    well bugger me now I know who you are….

  2. Alf Grumble says:

    Yep, Alf’s a hard-working bloke who makes Mondays an alcohol-free day all the way through until 1pm, who wants to keep his friendly little town free from high-rise developers, and who could generate enough power from his own bluster to light up Masterton, Eketahuna, Pahiatua, Carterton and maybe Greytown if his wind farm proposal could overcome greenie objections.

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