Why the Conservation Estate mining fight is tough

Lithium deposits like those some hope to find on the West Coast.

West Coasters are fighting hard to continue allowing mining on the Conservation Estate. Gavin Evans looks at what's at stake economically in a contest pitting regional development against the Labour-Green plan for a ban.

A proposal to ban new mining on conservation land goes far beyond coal and may limit the country’s ability to benefit from rising global demand for lithium and other minerals, Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn says.

The proposed ban, a Green Party pledge going into last year’s election, is due to be canvassed in a public discussion paper planned for later this year.

It comes months after a Government-funded study identified potential for rare earth elements on the West Coast, nickel-cobalt in Tasman-Marlborough and lithium (in demand for EV batteries) in the Central North Island and in the Hohonu Range on the West Coast.

Kokshoorn, a fierce defender of any opportunity for his struggling district, says the proposed ban is ideologically driven and “doesn’t stack up.” The Resource Management Act is an effective safeguard and if those minerals – or other resources - can be responsibly developed on low-value parts of the DoC estate then that should be allowed, he says.

“Those are all mining opportunities that are going to be a big asset for New Zealand – not just the West Coast,” he says.

“This argument is not just about coal. The gold and the rare earths minerals are so important to this argument.”

Stewardship land in question

The land subject to any potential ban is vast. The department manages about 8.9 million hectares nationwide – roughly a third of the country’s land area. About 40 percent of that is formally protected from activities like mining and there is wide agreement that figure should probably be higher.

But almost a third of the estate is classed as less-protected stewardship land, even though some of it is of very high value. In theory access can be sought – but is not guaranteed - to any of it for activities like mining or hydro development.

And that is where the battle lines have formed. Strident conservationists argue it’s all valuable and that at the very least it should be retained for replanting as part of a permanent carbon sink.

On the West Coast, where more than 80 percent of the region’s land is controlled by DoC, some fear the ban would see them permanently locked out of more than 850,000 hectares of land – some of which is currently used for quarrying, coal and gold mining – and some of which has been previously mined or worked for forestry.

Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones wants to see mining remain an option in the coast economy and says any reclassification of the region’s stewardship land needs to be robust.

Not just West Coast

The West Coast is the region most affected by the potential ban but it may not be alone.

Going into the election, Coromandel Watchdog called for DoC land in the Karangahake Gorge near Waihi in Hauraki District to be given the same protections as the Coromandel Forest Park further north. New Talisman Gold is exploring historic underground workings in the gorge with a view to resuming mining.

Thames-Coromandel Mayor and former National MP Sandra Goudie is pleased her district isn’t caught up in the current debate. But her sympathies are with the West Coasters.
She says advocates of the change appear to be taking advantage of the change of government rather than advancing a principled policy. She sees similar opportunism in the tone of the recent debate on freedom of speech and the on-going arguments about public access to high country land.

“It’s a bit of a shame actually. I would hate to see us start over-turning good sound practices just because people were able to take advantage of a change in the political climate.”
The footprint of the existing mining activities on the DoC estate is tiny – about 3,000 hectares. No major mines operate on the DoC estate. At the end of May, there were 112 operations approved for access to the DoC estate nationwide – 12 for coal, 90 for gold and 10 for quarrying, including limestone. Only 52 small-to medium-sized operations were active.

Kokshoorn says the proposed ban is out of all proportion to the “very, very small” mining footprint in the DoC estate.

His region is already transitioning away from extractive activities, but it needs a diversified economy, he says. The world’s steel makers still need coal and the coast needs more than just farming and tourism for jobs.

“Coasters just don’t understand why, when it comes to gold, sphagnum moss, gravel, why we can’t have access to that resource that is there,” he says.

“It’s policy-making on the hoof designed to make extreme environmentalists happy.

“Coasters are environmentalists too – but we’re not extremists.”

Mining not minor

And unlike much of the country, the West Coast economy continues to struggle. Tourism helped offset a four-year slide in coal prices through 2016 and the more recent trough in dairy prices. Both commodities have recovered lost ground, but the regional economy still contracted by about 4.5 percent in the March 2017 year, according to Infometrics.

Last week Forest & Bird chief executive and West Coaster Kevin Hague observed that coal and gold mining employed fewer than 500 in the region and that the coast community had got beyond a mindset of “digging up our environment or cutting it down.”

But the Infometrics report he cited showed mining still accounted for almost 9 percent of the region’s GDP in that March 2017 year – the fourth-largest contributor after agriculture, forestry and fishing, construction and manufacturing.

Change DoC's incentives?

Former Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright looked at the issues around mining in the DoC estate three times.

She considered the DoC estate too large for the Crown not to get a return on it and argued in 2010 that lower value areas should be open for mining, or land swaps, if a net conservation benefit resulted.

She was more concerned at the lack of consistency in DoC’s approach to those sorts of deals, and the slow pace of the department’s reclassification of stewardship land where it warranted greater protection. She also recommended that DoC should also receive income from mining concessions – as it does from other activities in the estate - in addition to the royalties the Crown received on the sale of minerals extracted.

The Green Party campaigned on the ban on new mining, but the policy isn’t in the party’s confidence and supply agreement with Labour. It was announced in the Government’s Speech from the Throne in November and it is up to Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage and Energy and Resources Minster Megan Woods to make it work.

More consultation this time

Unlike the ban on offshore oil and gas exploration, the Government has been talking to councils and industry for months and in May signaled a two-month public consultation process later this year.

Sage is aiming to get a discussion document out in September but last week indicated in Parliament that that may stretch into October.

She has been at pains to point out that the ban doesn’t stop mining on private land and doesn’t apply to existing operations on DoC land. The discussion has also widened to recognise the different impacts of different sorts of activity.

Rangatira's experience

But the experience of Rangitira Development Ltd, a mining venture part-owned by local iwi interests, shows what the reality can be on the West Coast.

The new Government declined a request to mine a 12-hectare sliver of Doc stewardship land as part of a development at Te Kuha, inland from Westport, approved last year by independent planning commissioners. The bulk of the project is in the adjoining Buller District Council-managed water catchment.

Sage and Woods said the economic benefits from the project were insufficient to offset the irreversible damage to the unique and nationally significant conservation values in that part of the DoC estate.

The venture has gone to court to challenge the ruling. Mining the four million tonnes of high-value coking coal would have employed about 50 people for 16 years and delivered an estimated $130 million of value through coal sales, royalties and blending gains for other coal miners in the area.

As well as rehabilitating the 109-hectare mine site, including direct transfer of at least 15 hectares of vegetation and the creation of 50 square-metres of lakes, the venture had also offered to fund a 25-year management programme over 5,000 hectares in the nearby Orikaka Forest and a heritage reserve at the Charming Creek mine site.