Govt's head in (iron) sand over mining ban

Govt's head in (iron) sand over mining ban

Posted on 9 January 2019

The NZ Herald - January 2019

The great Greek historian Thucydides had a dim view of politicians. In the fifth century B.C. he wrote: “Some legislators only wish to vengeance against a particular enemy . . . They devote very little time on the consideration of any public issue. They think that no harm will come from their neglect.”

He could well have been talking about our current government, and its plans to introduce a ‘no new mining on conservation land’ blanket ban.

It’s de rigueur, of course, to paint this proposed initiative as being in its formulative stages, with a consultation document being prepared that will give interested parties and the public the opportunity to present their views. But just as it did with oil and gas, it appears the Government is on a pre-determined course and is in no mood to let the facts get in the way.

Announced in late 2017 in the speech from the throne, it appears the Government’s policymakers had, in the words of Thucydides, devoted very little time considering the wider issues at stake. That’s why the long-awaited consultation document, which was originally slated to be released in October 2018, has not yet seen the light of day – and is unlikely to until at least mid-February.

Why? Because the issues are highly complex, potentially economically indefensible and the political chest-thumping simply places optics ahead of reality. Straterra, the industry association representing the New Zealand minerals and mining sector, strongly opposes the proposal.

The reality is, we have allowed mining on conservation land for many decades. Such activity is consented under the RMA to standards demanded by society. The RMA provides an independent and robust process that considers and balances social, economic and environmental impacts of a resource-based proposal. If, for whatever reason, the RMA and other environmental regulations are deemed to be not robust enough, they should be reviewed. This would be infinitely better than applying a total ban, which would close down many opportunities.

Our current estimate is that only 0.04% of the conservation estate is affected by mining – this is because the realities of finding and developing a commercial mine are very challenging. Resources are scarce and are becoming harder to find and mining will always have a very small footprint.

And consider this - about 33% of New Zealand’s land area is conservation estate. The conservation estate includes a range of land types and conservation values. 35% of the conservation estate is National Park land and is off limits - there is no argument there. 81% of the area of the West Coast is conservation estate – which has much of New Zealand’s most prospective land for minerals yet only a tiny footprint is mined.

Rare earth elements (REEs) have been flagged as of significant strategic importance– the government has rightly made many references to strategic minerals, including at the 2018 Minerals Forum in Queenstown. A recent GNS study found 79% of land prospective for REEs in New Zealand lies in the conservation estate. A blanket ban would close down access to these and other minerals important for the low carbon economy.

Like it or not, we can’t function without mining, which produces products essential for modern society. Aggregates for infrastructure, housing, concrete; coking coal for steel; gold, copper, cobalt, REEs, lithium and vanadium for electronics, electric vehicles, solar panels, batteries - this list goes on. We mine to meet demand and the demand for minerals exists to maintain and grow our standard of living, in New Zealand and globally.

And if we don’t mine in New Zealand, we must import the resources we need. We can choose to allow all mining to occur overseas, but that will often be in jurisdictions with lower environmental standards than we have here in New Zealand. We believe most responsible New Zealanders would not be comfortable simply shifting the issue offshore. And even if you overlook the environmental trade-off, the increased carbon footprint (and associated costs) of importing minerals from overseas make no sense.

We recognise these issues are complex. However, unless they are addressed, we risk losing investment, jobs, overseas revenue, taxes, funding (that can help manage and improve the conservation estate) – for no commensurate benefit.

If Thucydides were talking about our current government, the enemy referred to might be climate change and biodiversity destruction. But a more impartial consideration of these issues would reveal that a blanket ban on conservation land is a solution looking for a problem . . . and it would do more harm than good.

Ultimately, we must balance this conversation and get the right result for all New Zealanders.

Chris Baker, Chief Executive of Straterra, the industry group representing the New Zealand minerals sector