The Government’s call for more renewable energy is being hobbled by slow consent processes for wind farms, prompting Environment Minister David Benson-Pope to call in chief environment judge John Bollard to discuss the delays.
The meeting comes as a row simmers between the Government and state generator Meridian over its planned 630-megawatt Project Hayes wind farm in Otago.
Mr Benson-Pope would not reveal what he discussed with Judge Bollard on Thursday, but told The Dominion Post before the meeting that he wanted to know the reason for delays and whether he should use his power to “call in” consent hearings, fast-tracking decisions to the Environment Court.
“I want to talk to the judge about that because if we can’t have an understanding that processes are going to run pretty quickly, then I do need to consider whether I take a step out of the process, by way of use of the tools I have; call in.”
He said if delays were caused by a lack of resources, he needed to know that.
Meridian has complained that delays winning consent for its proposed West Wind project at Makara near Wellington have added $120 million to the cost of the project.
There have also been sharp backroom exchanges over Mr Benson-Pope’s refusal to “call in” the multibillion-dollar Project Hayes, which would be New Zealand’s largest wind farm.
It is understood Meridian chief executive Keith Turner has written a strongly worded letter to Mr Benson-Pope over the issue.
Meridian had requested the call-in because it believed that Central Otago District Council was dragging its feet hearing the application.
The council’s planning report recommended that the wind farm not proceed, highlighting its environmental impacts.
The hearing in Dunedin will run for two or three weeks.
Mr Benson-Pope said Meridian did ask him, quite close to the deadline, to intervene “once they saw a report they didn’t like, which I found a bit odd”.
However, he had confidence in the people undertaking the process. “If local authorities have or can acquire the expertise to hear the consent professionally that is the Government’s preferred option.”
A “whole of Government” submission had been lodged over Hayes and at hearings into TrustPower’s Mahinerangi project, also in Otago.
Those would state Government policy “on the desirability of renewables, the importance of this sort of investment, and the need for it.
“We have deliberately kept away from interfering in local decisions about landscape, local remediation of tussock land or whatever it may be,” Mr Benson-Pope said.
“My focus has to be on the wider desirability of renewables because that’s Government policy but the process having been run properly is the key for me.”
He rejected the suggestion that if the Hayes application failed it would be a blow to future wind farm projects and the Government’s push for more renewable energy generation.
“The process has shown – and approvals around the country have shown – the courts and councils deal with these issues on a case-by-case basis and that’s how it should be.”
Longer term, the Government might develop a national policy statement on wind power that would give weight to the national interest.
“I think it is entirely sensible once we see what comes out of the national energy strategy and the energy efficiency and conservation strategies for us to look at the wider issues of energy supply and location,” he said.
By Vernon Small
The Dominion Post
14 May 2007
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