18 June 2016

Emissions Trading Scheme unit allocations are open data but units surrendered and actual emissions are state secrets

It would be good if we could compare actual company emissions under the NZETS to the generous free allocations of unit some entities receive. But we can't. It's half secret. So how will we ever know if allocations are excessive?

Someone recently asked me if there was enough publicly available information to be able to tell how the free allocation of NZ emission units to some privileged ETS participants under the NZ Emissions Trading Scheme related to the emitters actual emissions of greenhouse gases.

This information would be the number of emission units allocated to some emitters on the one hand, and on the other hand, the actual emissions of the emitters as reported to the Environmental Protection Authority and the actual numbers of corresponding emission units they surrender to the Environmental Protection Authority.

I replied "No, the data is not available". A response which, although it contains a grain of truth, still doesn't reflect the whole story. So this post is an attempt at that story.

In the past few years, I have written several posts about the significance of the free allocation of emission units to New Zealand Aluminium Smelters Ltd, Norske Skog Tasman and New Zealand Steel. In each case I concluded that the free allocation of units (including units for energy costs) were excessive. That these were cases of 'over-allocation'.

In those posts I had to make estimates of the actual emissions and actual units surrendered. Although the Ministry for the Environment completely discloses the annual free allocation of units, neither the Ministry or the Environmental Protection Authority report the emissions and units surrendered by entity.

As I noted recently I have compiled a Google sheet of all units allocated to emitters from 2010 to 2014.

So good on the Ministry for the Environment. A while ago I made this pie chart of the 2011 allocations from the Ministry. Yes, awful rainbow colours I know! But it still makes it clear that the vast bulk of free units get allocated to the top ten or so emitters - who happen to also be some of New Zealand's largest and most influential companies.

I was running out of emitters like NZ Steel and NZ Aluminium Smelters Ltd who both have unique operations. Both are the only example of their industry in New Zealand. So I could look at 'category' emissions for 'aluminium smelting' and 'steel making from iron sands' in the Ministry for the Environment's greenhouse gas inventory reports and be confident the category emissions were the same as the company emissions.

So, back on 28 March 2013, I made a request under the Official Information Act (OIA) to the Environmental Protection Authority, who administer the reporting of emissions and surrendering of units in the ETS.

I asked for number of units surrendered by the top eleven ETS participants (New Zealand Steel Limited, New Zealand Aluminium Smelters Limited, Methanex New Zealand Limited, Fletcher Concrete and Infrastructure Limited, Ballance Agri-Nutrients Limited, Holcim (New Zealand) Limited, Carter Holt Harvey Pulp & Paper Limited, Pan Pac Forest Products Limited, McDonalds Lime Limited, Winstone Pulp International Limited, Whakatane Mill Limited) for 2010 and 2011.

On 18 April 2013, the Environmental Protection Authority declined my request.

On 19 April 2013 I made a complaint about the EPA decision to the Office of the Ombudsman.

Almost a year later, on 8 April 2014, the Ombudsman concluded his investigation and said that the EPA were correct in refusing to give me the information as the Climate Change Response Act 2002 explicitly applies to the surrender of units in priority to the Official Information Act 1982.

The Deputy Ombudsman Leo Donnelly advised that he agreed with the EPA view that they did not have to provide the information on units surrendered. This is the key passage from his letter dated 8 April 2014.

"I am not persuaded that the Official Information Act is an Act that provides for the disclosure of information in s 99(2)(a) of the Climate Change Response Act.
The Official Information Act confers a right to request official information and requires that such requests be processed in accordance with its provisions, but those provisions do not provide for the disclosure of information under the Climate Change Response Act (or any other Act that imposes restrictions on the availability of official information).
Instead, section 52(3)(b)(i) of the Official Information Act provides that nothing in that Act derogates from any provision which is contained in any other Act which imposes a prohibition or restriction in relation to the availability of official information. Section 99 is such a section.
Accordingly, the Official Information Act does not override the restrictions imposed by section 99 of the Climate Change Response Act and it would be contrary to that section for the requested information to be made available to you. Consequently, section 18(c)(1) of the Official Information Act provides a reason to refuse your request on that basis."

I was bloody disappointed with that response. Here is the Ombudsman's letter. I also didn't know that the Official Information Act only applies if another statute allows it too. I will look at the relevant sections in detail.

Section 52(3)(b)(i) of the Official Information Act states;

(3) Except as provided in sections 50 and 51, nothing in this Act derogates from—
(a) ....
(b) any provision which is contained in any other Act of Parliament or in any regulations within the meaning of the Regulations (Disallowance) Act 1989 (made by Order in Council and in force immediately before 1 July 1983) and which—
(i) imposes a prohibition or restriction in relation to the availability of official information;...

So if another statute (or regulation) prohibits or restricts the availability of official information, then that statute or regulation applies irrespective of the Official Information Act.

Section 99 of the Climate Change Response Act certainly appears to prohibit the availability of information. It states;

This section applies—
(a) to the chief executive, the EPA, an enforcement officer, and any other person who performs functions or exercises powers of the chief executive, the EPA, or an enforcement officer under this Part and Part 5; and
(b) at the time during which, and any time after which, those functions are performed or those powers are exercised.
(2) A person to whom this section applies—
(a) must keep confidential all information that comes into the person’s knowledge when performing any function or exercising any power under this Part and Part 5; and
(b) may not disclose any information specified in paragraph (a), except—
(i) with the consent of the person to whom the information relates or of the person to whom the information is confidential; or
(ii) to the extent that the information is already in the public domain; or
(iii) for the purposes of, or in connection with, the exercise of powers conferred by this Part or for the administration of this Act; or
(iiia) for the purposes of, or in connection with, reporting requirements of the Public Finance Act 1989; or (iv) as provided under this Act or any other Act; or
(v) in connection with any investigation or inquiry (whether or not preliminary to any proceedings) in respect of, or any proceedings for, an offence against this Act or any other Act; or
(vi) for the purpose of complying with any obligation under the Convention or the Protocol.
(3) A person to whom this section applies commits an offence under section 130 if the person knowingly contravenes this section.....

So why does the Ministry for the Environment publish the annual allocations of units on its website? Why is the policy for unit allocation effectively open data (with complete public disclosure) when the policy for emissions and units surrendered in the ETS, the policy is 'Official Secrets Act?

The answer is the perfect bureaucrat's answer, because the Act says so. Section 86B Decisions on applications for allocations of New Zealand units to industry and agriculture of the Climate Change Response Act states:

(5) The EPA must, as soon as practicable, after deciding an eligible person’s final allocation for an eligible activity in respect of a year,—
(a) publish the decision in the Gazette; and
(b) ensure it is accessible via the Internet site of the EPA

Where does this leave us? It's the old story of the three-handed forestry consultant. 'On the one hand, on the second hand, but on the third hand..' Its great that the data on free allocation of units to emitters is fully disclosed. I am sure many of them wouldn't want that. However, without data on units surrendered and actual annual emissions under the ETS, no one can make much of an assessment of whether the units allocated are reasonable or over-allocated in terms of exceeding actual emissions. Transparency (and legitimacy) would be very much improved if the actual emissions and unit surrenders were just as open as the unit allocations

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