Jones dismisses Ministry warning not to touch waste-to-energy scheme

A grant from the Provincial Growth Fund for a feasibility study for a West Coast waste-to-energy scheme was put on hold when RNZ revealed that it’s chief executive had been referred to the Serious Fraud Office, but RNZ now also reveals that the Environment Ministry had warned that it didn’t stack up financially or environmentally – but Shane Jones says that that was trivial and he would have ignored the warning and funded the feasibility study.

RNZ: Experts warned govt not to touch waste-to-energy scheme

The government announced hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding for a proposed waste-to-energy scheme two days after experts advised it was a lemon.

The Environment Ministry warned the Provincial Growth Fund that the proposed project on the West Coast did not stack up economically or environmentally.

Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones placed the proposed scheme on ice in February after RNZ informed him its chief executive, Gerard Gallagher, had been referred to the Serious Fraud Office.

Now, advice obtained under the Official Information Act shows the Environment Ministry warned the scheme had enormous flaws just two days before Mr Jones announced $350,000 for its feasibility study.

Not only would the scheme undermine other incentives to reduce waste – like recycling, it would increase carbon emissions the experts cautioned.

The Environment Ministry warned the project relied upon “unrealistic expectations”.

It said those behind the scheme “do not demonstrate an understanding of the South Island waste market”, “had not secured adequate feedstock for the project”, “the business case and budget are not adequately formed”, and “the applicant demonstrated key misunderstandings of the New Zealand context including the “erroneous assumption all landfills are required to close by 2040”.

But Jones dismisses this advice.

Mr Jones said he never received the advice and even if he had it would have made no difference.

“I haven’t seen that email, but look I wouldn’t catastrophise such trivial events – the bureaucrats will constantly be trading streams of analysis among themselves.”

Mr Jones said even if he had been aware of the Environment Ministry’s position it wouldn’t have changed a thing.

“It makes not one jot of difference to me – a feasibility study should be able to flush all such information out,” Mr Jones said.

“And if the thing dies as a consequence of a feasibility study that’s why private sector and public sector should do feasibility studies.”

That’s a concern on two levels.

Funding schemes against expert advice does not look good – it adds weight to suspicions that it is more of a NZ First slush fund than genuine regional development.

And does Jones get to decide who the Provincial Growth Fund hands money out to? The Fund is supposed to have an Independent Advisory Panel:

Provincial Growth Fund open for business

“We are being bold and we are being ambitious because this Government is committed to ending the years of neglect. Nearly half of us live outside our main cities. If this country is to do well, then our provinces must thrive.

“Our first regional packages support the regions most neglected by the last government: in Northland, Tairāwhiti-East Coast, Hawke’s Bay and Manawatū-Whanganui and the West Coast of the South Island.

The last one of those refers to the waste-to-energy scheme.

“An Independent Advisory Panel has been appointed to assist the decision-making of ministers and officials, supported by a new Regional Economic Development Unit within the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to work directly with regions, ensuring this isn’t a Wellington-driven Fund.

“The announcements we’re making today are just the beginning and I’m looking forward to building on this momentum over the coming weeks, months and years and realising the untapped potential of our provinces,” Mr Jones says.

I hope there is more momentum towards heeding expert advice.