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Hydroelectricity or wild rivers: Climate change versus natural heritage

31 May 2012

We tend to think of fraught environmental issues as environment versus economy. But sometimes the conflict is environment versus environment. Building a hydroelectric scheme on a wild and scenic river is one.

Hydroelectricity is good for the environment because it is a way of generating electricity without emitting the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Wild and scenic rivers are good for the environment too – they are a precious part of our environmental heritage, and New Zealanders love their rivers.

I began to think about this conflict when letters started coming into the office about the proposed hydroelectric dam on the Mokihinui River on the West Coast of the South Island. It seemed to me that there were strong arguments both ways and that this is a genuine dilemma.

As this report was going to the printers the developer, Meridian Energy, announced that the scheme was not going ahead. This report is not an evaluation of the merits of the now defunct Mokihinui proposal, although this case is used to illustrate some of the flaws in the system. Rather, the report is about the system of legislation, institutions, and processes under which choices are made between hydroelectricity and the protection of wild and scenic rivers.