By Hamish Barwick
Proposals by MBIE to increase minimum clearance distances for trees on farmland near overhead lines and poles would have Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) implications for some farmers, Federated Farmers says.
That’s because there is a real risk that an area greater than 1ha in trees will need to be cleared and prevented from being replanted, Senior Policy Advisor Jacob Haronga said in a Feds submission.
“The reality is that distribution lines in many rural areas run through farming properties instead of solely along the road reserve,” he wrote.
“This often happened to reduce the cost of bringing electricity into rural areas by shortening the route taken, or was a consequence of larger-scale rural properties later being subdivided into smaller sections. Either way, the discussion document appears to assume that tree cover on rural properties and farms would fall below the 1ha threshold.”
This also means an absence of protections under the Climate Change Response Act 2002 for deforestation liabilities arising from tree clearance mandated by legislation or regulation. To not have regard for ETS implications increases the risk/cost impact on affected farmers, especially with where the ETS carbon price is of late and with the Climate Change Commission insisting it must rise substantially in the years to come.
MBIE is conducting a Review of the Electricity (Hazards from Trees) Regulations 2003. The regulations are designed to provide clarity on the rights and responsibilities of those who own vegetation, such as trees and plants, and owners, such as electricity line owners or operators, where trees and electricity lines share space.
However, since 2003 there has been case law (Nottingham Forest Trustee v Unison Networks) that brings uncertainty to the minimum clearance distances described in the regulations. In that case, which went to the High Court, fall line risk was an issue. In addition, rates of afforestation on farmland have increased in recent years, increasing the risk of trees falling on overhead lines and poles.
The Regulations cover the trimming of trees near power lines and aim to protect the security of New Zealand’s electricity supply and keep the public safe.
“We are very aware of the many risks of increased afforestation across the country, most especially in rural areas on land that was previously grazed and farmed. That increased afforestation also presents issues for continuity of electricity service along the many lines and poles through rural areas,” Haronga wrote.
Keeping the farm running
Continuous electricity supply is an issue many farmers around New Zealand regularly have to deal with, whether from power outages or waiting for services to be restored.
“What we don’t want to see is the regulations used as an excuse to over-trim trees that farmers have planted to support the farm business, and for the costs of this additional degree to unreasonably fall on farmers,” he said.
“The Trees Regulations came into being at a time when afforestation was at particularly low levels. Further, this consultation comes almost 20 years since the Trees Regulations were gazetted. As such, it makes sense that they would fail to have regard for the scale and pace of land-use change we are seeing today.”
Haronga said electricity lines and transmission infrastructure are a “critical part” of the transition to a low emissions future, by ensuring electricity is reliably transported to where it needs to be. “The interaction of vegetation with power lines can increase the risk of electricity outages, damage electricity lines, create fire hazards, and become a safety risk to the public,” Haronga wrote.
Some of Feds’ recommendations include:
- There is recognition of the ETS implications to farmers from extending minimum clearance distances beyond what is currently described in the regulations.
- There is recognition of the greater cost burden that would be incurred by vegetation owners for weed and pest control should amendments take place that increase the land area needed to be kept clear.
- The interests of farmers should be considered a priority for the Trees Regulations, additional to that of ensuring continuity of electricity supply and public health and safety.
- The setting of minimum clearance distances for tree planting should avoid further enabling the over-trimming of identified trees on rural properties.