Robin becomes Batman – EPA gets more grunt

The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) will get a change of status and a lot more grunt under legislation now before Parliament. 

This Brief Counsel examines the proposed changes.

From Robin to Batman, EPA’s role extended

The EPA came into existence on 1 October last year as an office within the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) tasked with managing and administering the new call-in processes for “nationally significant” projects under the Resource Management Act (RMA). 

But from these modest beginnings, the Government’s intention was always that the EPA would become a ‘one-stop shop’ for environmental regulation.  Hence the Environmental Protection Authority Bill (the Bill), which went through its first reading in the House this week.  The Bill establishes the EPA as stand-alone Crown entity and substantially increases its remit.

New responsibilities include:

  • taking over the regulatory functions of the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA), primarily relating to hazardous substances and new organisms under HSNO
  • replacing the Ministry of Economic Development as regulator of the new Emissions Trading Scheme, and
  • acting as a technical advisor to Government and Crown entities on environmental matters, including New Zealand’s international obligations.  This role will also provide some much-needed independent support to the MfE on the development of national environmental standards under the RMA.

Background

The expansion of the EPA reflects the Government’s desire to centralise decision-making in order to more clearly reflect national priorities.  This is reflected in the explanatory statement to the Bill which states that:

The purpose of creating an EPA is to more effectively, efficiently and transparently manage the regulation of New Zealand’s environment and natural and physical resources.  The establishment of the EPA will achieve this through creating a national-level regulatory-focused agency that can contribute to providing greater central government direction on the regulation of the environment, consolidate regulatory and technical skills, and achieve efficiency gains by bringing together similar environmental regulatory functions and powers.

Next steps

There will be an opportunity to make submissions on the Bill at the select committee stages although, as the decisions have been well-telegraphed, substantive changes are unlikely.

Once the expanded EPA is up and running, the Government has signalled that it will introduce a new Environmental Reporting Act to address environmental monitoring in New Zealand.  A further enlargement of the EPA’s brief to include the administration of the Exclusive Economic Zone is also on the cards.

Comment

On the whole, we think the new model EPA is a positive and proactive step.  Infrastructure providers and developers will welcome the move toward stronger national direction over environmental decision-making.  Provided the momentum is maintained, we should also see rapid progress in the delivery of new national environmental standards (NES), which should unify approaches to environmental regulation across the country and speed up and simplify consenting processes. 

If the EPA does indeed fulfil Environment Minister Nick Smith’s ambitions and become a ‘one-stop shop’, the question arises whether we will at some stage see it expand further to take over certain regional council responsibilities (e.g. over contaminated land and discharge regulation).

But success is far from guaranteed.  No organisation can succeed unless it is adequately resourced and, given the Government’s tight budget and evidence already of some under-resourcing, there is reason to be concerned on this front. 

It is also difficult to assess in advance whether the EPA’s new powers will be more form than substance as, for the most part, it will simply be taking over existing functions (and staff) from other agencies.

Our thanks to Luke Hinchey for writing this Brief Counsel.  For further information, please contact the lawyers featured. 

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Related topics: Environment, planning & resource management; Environmental Protection Authority

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