OpEd for Newsroom

OpEd for Newsroom

Posted on 2 October 2020

The noise from anti-mining activists on the issue of mining on conservation land is disappointing to the minerals industry, and it should be disappointing to all New Zealanders. Instead of an informed debate, the public has been repeatedly presented with misinformation, falsehoods and fake news via the media. As the general election looms, it is timely to set the record straight on an industry which is essential to modern society and to the transition to a lower-carbon world.

Forest and Bird’s main concern appears to be that despite the government’s surprise announcement in November 2017 that there would be no new mines on conservation land, there have continued to be applications for Crown minerals permits on conservation land, and that many of these have been granted.

Prospecting and exploration permits are granted over large areas and mining permits over much smaller areas. Unfortunately, Forest and Bird would lead the public to believe in its media statements that mining companies are going to dig up 150,000 hectares of conservation land. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Economic mineral deposits are sparsely distributed in the landscape and mining is always a high value use of land – if that were not so there would be no economic justification to mine. Only 0.04 per cent of New Zealand’s entire land area is currently mined, a relatively very small footprint compared with other land uses, and this percentage will not increase significantly over time.

Importantly, this statistic includes quarries, which everyone will agree are necessary to supply the aggregates for roading, concrete and the billions of dollars being spent on new infrastructure.

As far as conservation land is concerned, the major threat to indigenous species and ecosystems are exotic animal pests and weeds, not mining. Pests ignore the sign that says “national park” while mining companies face a barrage of regulatory scrutiny for every project, including those on conservation land, and rightly so.

Let’s consider what mining companies must do before turning the first sod on a project, to produce the minerals that – let’s remind ourselves – New Zealand and the world needs.

They will need a permit from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment; a land access arrangement with the Department of Conservation; resource consents from relevant district and regional councils, and likely, a wildlife permit and possibly also a concession from DoC, and possibly heritage authorities from Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.

All of these regulatory approvals overlap in scope, and individually and together set very high standards for environmental management and nature conservation. As they should. There is ample evidence from mining activity, past and present, that supports that assertion.

If anything, New Zealand’s regulatory regimes reflect fast-evolving international good and best practice in these fields. This is the world of mining today. It is not a world of picks and shovels, and canaries and coal mines as Forest and Bird and the media would imply with their one-sided coverage of an essential industry.

Mining today is a multidisciplinary world that provides good and well-paid jobs, contributes to regional economies and to exports, produces materials that society needs, with very high standards as regards workplace health and safety, and environmental and conservation management.

Forest and Bird’s Kevin Hague says that mining of conservation land in “pretty much nearly every case”, results in total and permanent destruction of conservation values. This is false. Site rehabilitation at the Stockton coal mine, the Macraes gold mine in Otago, the closed Globe Progress mine in native forest on the West Coast, and countless other examples occurring around the country will reveal to anyone with an interest that rehabilitation is completed to a very high standard, during and after mining. At Waihi, the mining company restored the Ohinemuri River with several kilometres of riparian planting; resulting in cleaner water and a much-improved habitat for fish and insects.

Mining is singular in being a temporary use of land, and capable of returning the land to what it was or very like it, or converting into a new or enhanced use, subject to resource consent conditions and other regulatory approvals.

The mining industry in New Zealand can be proud of what it is achieving today, and New Zealanders can adopt, as a starting assumption at least, that mining companies are robustly regulated and are meeting high standards to manage the environment and conservation, as circumstance allow and require.

It is certainly true that if trees are felled for mining, it will take time for the trees to regrow. It is also the case that mining companies can plant a more diverse ecology than there was previously and, importantly, contribute to pest and weed control at priority sites in New Zealand for which funding is permanently scarce.

The issue of mining and the environment and nature conservation is not a black-and- white issue. It is not good enough to say, mining is bad, and protecting all conservation land from mining is good. Doing the best we can for New Zealand is a complex undertaking, and trade-offs are inherent to this undertaking. That does not mean trashing the environment. It means economic development that provides for a net positive benefit to the environment, over time.

This is the type of conversation the mining industry seeks to have with communities, iwi, New Zealanders, and our government and the officials who advise it.

It is a debate about promoting a highly skilled, well remunerated and diverse workforce who live in communities, who contribute to regional economies, who contribute, ultimately, to New Zealand’s wellbeing in responsible ways.

We understand there are those who have concerns about mining – and of course those concerns deserve to be aired and discussed. But let’s inform ourselves on the facts and use those facts.