Big defects in Environmental Reporting Bill

Government introduced its long promised  Environmental Reporting Bill (ER Bill) last week. It reneges on its previous election commitments for independent state of the environment (SOE) reporting and instead proposes a poorly designed halfway house. This would see the Ministers for the Environment and of Statistics choosing what topics the reporting should cover, the Ministry for the Environment (MFE) and Department of Statistics doing the work, and Parliament’s environmental watchdog, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE) able to comment.

The Bill has yet to have its first reading in Parliament and a closing date for submissions has yet to be set.  National’s Bill has at least three major defects:

Environment reporting

–          It requires the reporting to include the economic benefits from resource use.

–          It gives the Minister for the Environment and Minister of Statistics wide regulation making powers to set the topics to be covered in both the three yearly synthesis reports and the occasional domain reports.

–          It enables MFE and the Department of Statistics to block the public release of a wide range of routine environmental information if any of it might be, or has been used in a state of the environment report.

Air, atmosphere and climate, freshwater, land and marine are to be the subject of occasional domain reports. A domain report for one (not all) of the five domains must be published at least once every six months. Synthesis reports on New Zealand’s environment as a whole are planned every three years with the first by 30 June 2015.

As well as the state of the environment, the Bill provides for the reports to describe the pressures driving environmental trends and the impacts of these trends.

That’s the first of the major problems with the Bill. Clauses 7 and 10 require domain and synthesis reports to each describe the impact that the state of the environment and changes in it, may be having on “economic benefits derived from using natural resources.”

Under a progressive government, this might include analysis of the financial damage that our polluted, rivers are doing to our “100 Per cent Pure NZ” brand and marketing platform. National’s “dig it, drill it, mine it, irrigate it” economic policy makes this unlikely. Instead the provision risks being used  to legitimise further environmental  degradation and “trading off” environmental quality against short term GDP and job benefits from big new irrigation damns and  increased water takes.

Secondly, if SOE reporting is to be independent then Ministers shouldn’t need the substantial regulation making powers in clause of 18 of the Bill. These include prescribing the topics to be reported on, the pressures which are changing the state of the environment, and the impacts the changes are having.  These regulation-making powers give Ministers wide scope to interfere with and restrict the matters to be reported on and the types of information which will be relevant.  It’s another example of the centralised and politicised decision making on environmental regulation which characterises this National administration.

Under National the Environment Minister has used her regulation making powers under the EEZ legislation to block public submissions on marine consent applications for risky deep sea oil drilling by classifying this as a non notified activity; and in further draft regulations is proposing to permit the discharge of sediments from deep sea prospecting and exploration and prevent public submissions  on marine dumping (eg from seabed dredging).

Ministers need to be hands off  and clause 18 deleted for a credible environmental reporting system.

Finally, as No Right Turn has noted, clause 16 of the Bill gives the heads of MFE and Statistics the power to refuse requests for any environmental information or analysis which “will be, or has been used” in an environmental report. MFE has no staff or operational capacity to do state of the environment monitoring itself. It relies on local authorities and CRIs such as NIWA for information on water and air quality for example.

Officials say this regime is comparable to current practice for Tier 1 statistics (eg Gross Domestic Product) and covers requests from any person including Ministers and PCE.  The “no disclosure” clause could allow the chief executive of MFE to block the release of considerable environmental monitoring and trend information collected and held by councils, CRIs and other agencies.

The clause also risks making it impossible to challenge the accuracy of published environmental reports by requesting and scrutinising the trend and other data on which they are based.

The Bill says the no disclosure clause, “applies despite any other enactment.” This means that Ministers have deliberately chosen to override the Official Information Act with its commitment to open government and freedom of information. It means there is no opportunity for the Ombudsman to review CEO decisions.

National amended the RMA (section 35) in 2013 to require local authorities to monitor any indicators that the Environment Minister prescribed in regulations. When the non disclosure clause in the environmental reporting bill is reads alongside the RMA, Ministers appear to have extensive control over both what information is collected about how clean and green we are, and when it is released.

The Government will greenwash the Bill as a first for New Zealand. If the no disclosure clause is not much more tightly drawn the Bill risks being a step backwards for our understanding of the state of our environment.

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