Opinion: A friend who worked in one of the ministries years ago called it “hiding the cheese”.

When there’s a document you would prefer not to supply under the Official Information Act, you have to find a reason.

The Act provides a helpful list of reasons for redacting information from a release. Privacy, national security, commercial sensitivity – there is a long list that journalists can cite by section and letter.

But Section 18(e) may be the best place to hide the cheese. Simply assert that the information does not exist.

It’s a dangerous one, 18(e). If the cheese does exist, sometimes it gives off a pong. A pong leads to more refined requests. And the document that did not exist suddenly has to appear.

Last week, the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority finally had to release some Stilton. Too long hidden, it does not smell very good.

It raises questions about the authority’s GIDI fund, which subsidises investment in lower-carbon technologies. A consultant wondered whether four of five assessed subsidies had really led to investment that otherwise would not have happened. Twenty percent seems a poor strike rate in this game.

But it also raises substantive questions about compliance with the Official Information Act when officials are willing to redefine the meaning of words to avoid delivering a document. A sufficiently tortured redefinition of the term “advice” may be indistinguishable from a flat-out lie.

Here’s the sad story.

Submissions on the Government’s Emissions Reduction Plan were due by June 27. The Plan put a lot of emphasis on Government micromanagement of the climate response: specific subsidies here, targeted regulations there.

None of it seemed to take appropriate account of the Emissions Trading Scheme’s binding cap on net emissions.

If you subsidise a company through a programme such as the GIDI fund to invest in a low-carbon boiler, that company will buy fewer carbon credits. Someone else can buy and use them instead. It is difficult for subsidies targeting emissions already covered by the Emissions Trading Scheme to provide overall net emission reductions.

It is also difficult for those kinds of subsidies to provide additional investment – or at least additional investment that is worth the money. High carbon prices provide an incentive to invest in lower-emission technologies. How can we know we aren’t just paying a company to do something it would have done even without the subsidy?

And if the investment did not make sense without the subsidy, despite sharply rising carbon costs, where is the value-for-money? New Zealand has a target to hit net zero by 2050. Subsidies encouraging companies to replace machines a bit sooner rather than later, at substantial cost to taxpayers, don’t do a lot of good for a 2050 target.

Information on any GIDI assessment work would be important for an inevitable submission on the Government’s Emissions Reduction Plan.

On May 2, I requested “Copies of all external advice EECA has received since 1 January 2022 on the additionality of projects funded through the GIDI fund.”

On May 30, chief executive Andrew Caseley replied: “EECA has determined that there are no pieces of advice within the scope of your request, as we have not commissioned or received any external advice on the additionality of projects funded through the GIDI fund.”

He also noted that the application process involves scrutiny of evidence regarding additionality.

I followed up, requesting any evaluation or interim evaluation of the GIDI fund. There was some chance they’d decided that draft reports were out-of-scope when answering my request. It’s a standard way of hiding the cheese that I should have avoided with better drafting.

Submissions on the Emissions Reduction Plan were due by June 27. I asked that relevant documents be provided in time to help my submission.

On June 23, with the submissions deadline close at hand, EECA Acting Manager of Policy and Engagement Daniel Barber told me there were no substantive documents or reports within scope – but that they had an evaluation strategy in place, with data yet to be collected.

The word “substantive” felt like cheese-hiding.

So I put the question more plainly, saying, “I am taking your response as indicating that, to the best of your knowledge, neither EECA, nor any third party (eg consultants), have conducted any desktop analysis of GIDI-funded projects, including their estimated impacts, additionality, etc, since the panel process that decided on successful applicants.”

Barber helpfully, and quickly, replied, “Yes it is correct that EECA has not commissioned or revisited any analysis of the estimated impacts of approved GIDI projects at this stage. I have consulted with the relevant EECA staff on preparing these responses.”

So my submission cautioned against relying too heavily on GIDI-style approaches whose additionality had yet to be proven.

A few weeks later, in answer to a Written Parliamentary Question, Minister Woods pointed to some consulting work done for EECA that looked potentially relevant. So I requested the consultant’s work.

Last week I received a presentation from Concept Consulting, dated March 24, titled “Evaluation of GIDI 1.0: Discussion with EECA”. Concept had been engaged to review a sample of applications to provide recommendations for any subsequent Fund rounds.

Recall that assessments of additionality were, in first instance, based on information provided in fund applications. More thorough work would wait until more data had come in.

The presentation included a lengthy section on project additionality, which began, “It appears that four of the five projects evaluated may not be additional”. In the consultant’s view, the projects all had short payback periods and high internal rates of return. Additionality would not be a given: might the companies have made those investments on their own, without the subsidy?

It’s an interesting question. The presentation provided some views from the consultant on ways additionality might be checked in future application rounds.

But my request of May 2 was for “Copies of all external advice EECA has received since 1 January 2022 on the additionality of projects funded through the GIDI fund”, and my later request made very clear this included drafts and presentations, whether produced in-house or by consultants.

EECA had told me no such advice existed.

The presentation from Concept Consulting, dated 24 March, titled “Evaluation of GIDI 1.0”, with an extensive section on additionality, had been considered as being out of scope.

When I put to EECA, as a media request, that they had lied to me, deliberately and repeatedly, in response to my Official Information Act requests, Caseley replied that it had determined that the consultant’s work, including the presentation slides, “did not constitute advice on the additionality of GIDI projects funded to date”.

The consultant’s work had been intended “to ensure consistency across the financial information used to assess GIDI 2.0 applications”, and the information on additionality “was given and received as the author’s opinion and was not intended to inform EECA’s thinking on additionality”.

EECA considered the work as having been unable to assess additionality. In EECA’s view, further information, including information about companies’ internal decision-making processes, would have been needed.

He said that EECA “categorically did not make any attempt to deliberately withhold information that would have informed [my] submission on the Emissions Reduction Plan”.

In other words, this piece of Roquefort is not, in fact, cheese.

I have asked the Ombudsman for a determination.

But if a presentation titled “Evaluation of GIDI”, with an extensive section on project additionality, is out of scope on an OIA request for advice received about the additionality of GIDI funding, because it was deemed to be opinion rather than advice, I wonder whether a true Scotsman exists.

And I sure would have appreciated having had this presentation in preparing my submission, along with EECA’s reasons for considering it inadequate. That’s what the OIA is supposed to be for.

It should not be a game of finding the cheese.

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