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How Fast-track Consenting Might Impact The Environment – Expert Reaction

Submissions on the Fast-track Approvals Bill close at the end of Friday.

The law would allow major infrastructure projects to bypass lengthy resource consenting processes – being assessed instead by an expert panel, with Ministers ultimately having the final say on projects.

The SMC asked experts to comment.

Dr Caroline Miller, Honorary Research Fellow, Massey University, comments:

“The Minister for the Environment seems completely missing from this legislation, which seems to suggest that an environmental perspective has been completely sidelined. It is astonishing that such significant developments could be consented to without any input from the minister who has responsibility for protecting the environment and upholding the integrity of the RMA as legislation.

“The fast-track consent panel is made up of people who are very competent and experienced in developments and in infrastructure projects in particular. There is an urban planner included in the panel but he will face a difficult time in trying single-handedly to assert any environmental or planning perspectives. It certainly signals the desire to use this new legislation for large, complex projects with potentially very significant effects for the community they are located in. This will all be assessed through a rapid and truncated assessment process.

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“There seems to be a number of signals that this process could be open to projects that have been declined consents in the past, including ones which have been appealed as far as the Supreme Court. If this is the case then it undermines the whole planning system and the public and affected parties’ roles in it. Essentially this will offer a second opportunity to advance a project that has been declined after extensive scrutiny. If that is not going to be the case, it may be prudent for the government to make a clear statement now, that this will not happen.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I am a Fellow (Retired) of the New Zealand Planning Institute and help with submissions in a general way.”

Professor Amanda Black, Director – Bioprotection Aotearoa, comments:

Note: this is an excerpt from Professor Black’s comments on our natural infrastructure.

“Land intensification and fragmentation continue to be the main factors driving impacts on our natural resources, with irrigation increasing and urban development expanding – increasing the pressure on our most highly productive land. This has also been covered by a 2023 report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

“It will be interesting to see how this government balances these contributing and often competing economic interests of land intensification with urban sprawl with the proposed introduction of the Fast Track Bill – the government’s proposed legislation that will give government ministers the power to override relevant legislation without any consultation and due process.

“If we want to continue to enjoy our unique landscapes, including our unique biodiversity, then what we need to see are policies that provide clear pathways to improving land resilience and solutions that can be readily implemented to balance our needs and the need to maintain the integrity of our whenua.”

Conflict of interest statement: “Member, Mātauranga Māori and Science Advisory Panel, MfE.”

Associate Professor David Campbell, School of Science Te Aka Mātuatua, University of Waikato, comments:

“Aotearoa wetlands are diverse and globally significant. Seven of our wetlands are listed as wetlands of international significance under the Ramsar Convention. We should think of these as our “National Park of wetlands”, yet their future is far from assured. For instance, Whangamarino Wetland in the lower Waikato River Valley is threatened by sedimentation and nutrient enrichment from farmland erosion and a flood control scheme. Awarua Wetland in Southland has suffered large fires that have destroyed habitat.

“Under the government’s Fast-track Approvals Bill, wetlands, including our Ramsar sites, may be at risk from development for agricultural production or mining.”

“Peat-forming wetlands, including some of our Ramsar sites, are amongst the most carbon-dense ecosystems on the planet. Draining or damaging them releases carbon, including large, long-lasting emissions of CO2. Peatlands formerly drained for agriculture occupy only 1.3% of Aotearoa’s agricultural soil area, yet their ongoing emissions are equivalent to 8-10% of our national net emissions. We urgently need to protect our remaining wetlands from development.”

No conflicts of interest.

Professor Margaret Stanley, ecologist, University of Auckland, comments:

Note: This comment is an excerpt from an article in The Conversation, which is free to republish with credit.

“Aotearoa New Zealand’s environment is in deep trouble. Talk of a “crisis” can be unhelpful if it encourages a sense of hopelessness. But with the government’s Fast-track Approvals Bill approaching rapidly, now is arguably the time to use the word. By emphasising short-term economic gain, it risks eroding the country’s already fragile natural capital and pushing biodiversity further into decline.

“Ecosystems cannot be restored. Once destroyed, they are gone forever. This is known in restoration ecology as the “Humpty Dumpty effect”. Here are just some of the facts:

  • only 22% of Aotearoa’s original vegetation remains
  • at least 79 species extinctions have been recorded
  • remaining species currently threatened or at risk include 94% of reptiles, 90% of seabirds, 74% of land birds, 76% of freshwater fish and 46% of plants
  • 90% of our wetlands have been lost, as well as 80% of our active sand dune ecosystems
  • 63% of rare ecosystems are threatened
  • 46% of lakes over one hectare are in poor or very poor ecological health.

“New Zealanders often imagine native vegetation is well protected and the wholesale land clearance practised by earlier generations has stopped. But many terrestrial ecosystems are still being cleared today for development.

“Aotearoa New Zealand is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity (signed in 1993) and the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (signed in 2022). By removing existing environmental protections, the Fast-Track Approvals Bill threatens to undermine these international obligations.

“Ecosystem processes, such as pollination and soil formation, underpin primary production and provide pest and disease resilience. Failing to recognise the value of New Zealand’s natural capital – which has previously often been regarded as value-less economically – risks leaving future generations with even less to support their economy, health and wellbeing.

“Degraded ecosystems can reach a tipping point, when they collapse and stop functioning – for example, the “eutrophication” of freshwater systems, which become nutrient-rich and depleted of oxygen. The economic loss from soil erosion alone (192 million tonnes lost annually) is estimated at NZ$250-$300 million each year. It takes a thousand years to generate three centimetres of topsoil – and it is running out rapidly.

“Taken together, the potential long-term costs on ecosystems and the vital services they provide need to be carefully considered before the proposed legislation comes into force.

Conflict of interest statement: Margaret Stanley has received funding for technical advice from the Ministry for Primary Industries and the Ministry for Environment, and for research from the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment’s National Science Challenges.

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