Thursday, 24 May 2012

A dam shame

Yesterday the news broke that Meridian Energy has decided not to proceed with its bid to build a new hydroelectric dam on the Mokihinui River, north of Westport. The reasons cited by Meridian include the "high costs and risks surrounding a scheme that encroached on environmentally sensitive land." This makes it sound as if Meridian are concerned about the environment, but in the end the process of approval was simply made too hard and too costly for them to proceed through the Environment Court. Conservation groups are of course claiming this as a victory.

Let me say, first of all, that I care about environmental issues as much as any comfortable middle-class left of centre pakeha family man. By this I mean I happily put out my recycling bin each fortnight safe in the knowledge that I am saving the world, I have a number of those odd curly light bulbs at home, and I tut-tut to myself under my breath when I see a big dirty corporate being painted as doing something nasty to the environment on Campbell Live. I was not happy with the idea of opening up National Parks for mining, because there is a place for preservation of our native species and natural beauty for future generations. Very little ruins the aesthetic appeal of an area like digging it open to mine it, and there are plenty of tracts of land in private ownership which could be exploited for their mineral wealth first. 

However, Meridian's decision saddens me. I think most people would acknowledge that we need to invest in more electricity generation capacity. The problems several years ago with low levels in hydro lakes in central Otago highlights how fragile our supply can be, and how dependent we are on benevolent weather patterns. So it seems a no-brainer to build a dam on the West Coast, an area which receives the highest and most consistent rainfall in the country. That's the reason my dad moved us away from the Coast when I was a young lad, to get away from the rain. Meridian's plan involved building a dam on an isolated river that nobody really knew existed and would have generated power to supply 50,000 homes. The resulting lake created would have been 14km long, and the area would have been opened up for recreational purposes to Coasters.

Yes, there were environmental issues involved here, the area plays host to kiwi, bats, blue ducks, eels, fish, etc. But it isn't as if the lake would have sprung up overnight drowning all and sundry instantaneously. These things take time. I'm pretty sure the kiwi and bats* would have walked up the hill to keep their feet/wings dry and I doubt the ducks, eels and fish would be complaining about a lake to swim around on/in. I understand the arguments about reducing the area of natural habitats available for these species to breed and live in, and I am generally sympathetic to these concerns. But this is one of those occasions when I think we ought to have considered the economic and infrastructural benefits over and above these concerns. And if the government is, as looks inevitable, planning on selling off a part share in Meridian, showing that the nation is sympathetic to development wouldn't be a terrible signal to send to potential investors.

*Note that our native bats aren't especially strong fliers, they tend to spend a great deal of their time crawling around on the forest floor.

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