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Is this really about fast-track development?  

No. The law already has a fast-track consenting process that the Government can use through the fast-track provisions of the Natural and Built Environment Act 2023. This new Bill is instead about prioritising economic development and removing any “red tape” that gets in the way – including environmental protections and safeguards.  It also gives ministers the personal power to ignore environmental protections like clean water and preventing extinction. Economic development minister Shane Jones has made it clear that if a threatened species is in the way of development, then it should just become extinct

How will this law differ from existing fast-track processes? 

The existing fast-track provisions are for housing and infrastructure whereas the Government’s proposed law is much broader – it is for ‘national and regional development.’ In addition, under this new law, rather than an independent professional panel of experts, ministers will have the final say on projects.

The purpose of the existing fast-track is aimed at speeding up development while protecting the environment. This new process is aimed at speeding up development while overriding environmental protection. Forest & Bird ran a webinar in March explaining the Bill’s main provisions and why there is so much concern about its implications for conservation and democracy.

Will this Bill override existing environmental protections?

Yes. The purpose of the Fast-track Approvals Bill would override the environmental and conservation purposes of the Conservation Act, Reserves Act, and Wildlife Act, as well as the RMA and law governing the Exclusive Economic Zone among others. The purpose of the Bill is to facilitate development and does not include any mention of environmental protection or sustainability.

In addition, the Bill specifically makes it so that activities not allowed under other legislation can go ahead under the Fast-track Approvals Bill. This includes activities that would not normally be allowed to go ahead under the Resource Management Act, as well as projects that are inconsistent with the Conservation Act.

Groups are unanimous that this will undermine environmental protections, with Forest & Bird’s Chief Executive Nicola Toki pointing out that it bypasses laws that are based on science, and that “New Zealand already has the highest proportion of threatened species in the world, and this will put more on a fast track to extinction."

How will decisions be made under the Bill?

While the projects will be referred to an expert panel that can make recommendations, the final decision-making power will lie in the hands of just a few ministers. For most projects this the Infrastructure Minister Chris Bishop, the Regional Development Minister Shane Jones and the Transport Minister Simeon Brown. Some other decisions will be by or jointly with Conservation Minister Tama Potaka.

How will the expert panel work?

The expert panel has no decision-making power and is not required to seek comment from the public or groups like Forest & Bird. The panel will usually have four members and will seek comment from only limited groups before passing draft conditions. Ministers then make the decision and can ask the panel to reconsider the conditions or ask applicants to relodge their application. The Fast-track Approvals Bill proposes set timeframes for Minsters and the Expert Panels to make decisions and recommendations. Importantly, the panel can only operate within the purpose of the legislation – since this doesn't have environmental bottom lines or safeguards, the panel isn’t bound by them.

What projects are being proposed?

The Government hasn’t made this public. This is deeply concerning. It is proposing to introduce a list of projects into the legislation at the final stages of considering the bill, which will be too late to be considered in the select committee process or receive proper public scrutiny. This may be as many as 100 or more projects, and further projects could then be referred by Ministers. It’s no surprise that competition is intense to be one of the first approved projects under the new law.

Will projects that have been previously rejected by the courts for environmental reasons be allowed to apply?

Yes – in fact, Forest & Bird is particularly worried that the new legislation will give projects that have been rejected by the courts in the past an option to bypass New Zealand’s usual environment protections altogether.

One of these is Te Kuha, a proposed opencast coal mine that would destroy a mountain top on public conservation land. In March, the mining company abandoned its court appeal, making it likely on the fast-track list. Others include seabed mining off the coast of Taranaki, where the company also recently pulled out of a hearing in a likely bid for fast-tracking, and the proposed Ruataniwha dam, which would flood forested conservation land and had been previously rejected by the Supreme Court.

What consultation has been done on the Bill?

Virtually none, at least outside of lobbyists directly contacting the key ministers. The Ministry for the Environment’s report on the Bill pointed out that there has been limited analysis in relation to conservation, heritage, or public works legislation, that the Department of Conservation has not provided any analysis, and that there may be unquantified negative impacts on conservation land and wildlife outcomes.

What should I do?

People power can help push the Government to reconsider this anti-democratic and anti-nature law. You can help by writing to your MP and calling on the Government to release the list of projects, as we did in a letter to Chris Bishop. You can also submit against the Bill, either through our quick submission form or direct to the Parliamentary Select Committee. If you are able to speak in person to your submission, all the better. Submissions close 19 April 2024. Forest & Bird is putting on a workshop webinar to help people submit on Thursday 4 April. It will be recorded, and you will be able to share it widely.  

This is the biggest ever fight for New Zealand’s environment, and our climate and environment need all the help they can get.

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