1 Apr 2015

Environmental authority under fire

11:32 am on 1 April 2015

The Environmental Protection Authority was subjected to some blistering criticism at an energy conference in Auckland.

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Photo: 123RF

It was accused of being poorly focused and very expensive in the way it administers New Zealand's Exclusive Economic Zone.

Some of these criticisms were accepted by the authority's own managers. Chairwoman Kerry Prendergast produced a long list of things she thought had to change and the chief executive Rob Forlong said he felt guilty about the expensive fees charged.

The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) was supposed to be breaking new ground when it was set up with a mandate of checking the environmental impact of major projects.

In fact it has proved more likely to break the bank.

Environmental Protection Authority chief executive Rob Forlong.

Rob Forlong Photo: Supplied

Chief executive Mr Forlong almost admitted as much, telling his audience the authority had few resources. It is obliged by law to recover costs from companies seeking approval for a project and the sums involved are huge.

"I've said it to the Minister, I feel really guilty about charging people between $1 million and $2 million for a piece of paper," he said. "And sometimes I charge them that sort of money for no piece of paper - for a 'no'."

Operators of the offshore Maari oil well, whose ocean drilling was recently approved by the EPA, were unimpressed at the expense involved.

Not only did they have to pay $3 million to get the right to keep operating a well that was already pumping, but Maari project legal manager Patrick Teagle said they had to provide a lot of the authority's research themselves.

"The scientific evidence that was put up was put up by us," he said.

"Many of the marine mammal observations that have been made were made from staff on offshore installations, and it was ironic that you were being criticised by opponents of the application for a lack of data when the data that was available had been collected by us."

In another admission, Mr Forlong told the conference the authority and the legislation it implements were new and still being worked out.

"Look, this stuff is what happens when you get new legislation, it's unpleasant, it's bumpy, it's miserable for everyone at times, but it is a reality and it is expensive the way we do it in this country."

This earned a swift rebuke from Mr Teagle.

"We are going to have to come up with a more robust way of somehow solving this because we can't simply go on saying 'well, it's is bumpy and it's difficult and it's going to take time' because we may as well say to the international investment community 'I'm sorry it's quite bumpy and difficult here, please don't come'."

The authority was also criticised by two speakers for blocking two seabed mining proposals off south Taranaki and on the Chatham Rise.

The speakers said neither proposal had stood a chance because of the way the authority worked, though this opinion was contested by another speaker, Gary Taylor of the Environmental Defence Society.

Some of the strongest criticism of the way the EPA administers the Exclusive Economic Zone came from the authority's own chairwoman, Kerry Prendergast.

In a speech, she outlined seven faults with the way the system works, including the adversarial nature of many of the hearings.

She also said the authority was required by law to favour the environment and turn down proposals when information was not adequate. As a result, a lack of information, which was not the applicants' fault, made the EPA adopt a default position and turn them down.

Ms Prendergast said these and other matters had been conveyed to the Environment Minister Nick Smith, whose officials are looking at the problem.

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