Contact Energy appealed against the decision of the Waikato Regional Council and Taupo District Council for refusing consent for a proposed geothermal power station near Taupo.
Opponents of the application included the Tauhara Middle Trust (TMT) holding over 1635 hectares of land in part of the Tauhara Geothermal Field in trust for 2400 members of the Tauhara Hapu tribe. TMT’s case was that the Tauhara Hapu had a special relationship with the Tauhara geothermal resource which they regarded as highly valued taonga. They sought exclusive and undisturbed possession of the resource and did not want Contact Energy to have access to any more of “the limited and non-renewable geothermal resource from the Wairakei/Tauhara geothermal system.” They also argued that in the absence of certainty, the precautionary principle should apply as the consequences of risking Taupo’s natural and built environment could have catastrophic and long-term impacts on the community’s social cultural and economic well-being.
Furthermore, the District Council urged that because consent, once granted, could not be recalled even if later investigations showed that it should not have been granted, the appellant needed to produce compelling evidence to satisfy the Court that the potential impact of the adverse effects on the environment would not occur. The court needed to have a high degree of assurance and certainty about the extent, location and probability of adverse effects and that the effects could be avoided or remedied, or very substantially mitigated.
The court held that the appropriate scale or degree to ascribe to the relevant significance of the concerns advocated by the opponents, including the uncertainty of the predictions about adverse environmental effects, was not enough to warrant refusing the consents. Even allowing for the uncertainty in the predictions, the evidence did not support even low probability of catastrophic and long-term impacts of the project on hundreds or thousands of people, or of grave potential effects endangering very substantial property assets, as claimed.
The court found that the modified proposal would overall serve the purpose of sustainable management of natural and physical resources, and that the resource consents needed should be granted subject to conditions imposed by the court.