West Coasters – seeking a pragmatic solution
Kevin Hague’s Greymouth Star Oped last week, Coast without mining, makes some valid points.
He notes “a thriving West Coast economy in the future has to embrace new industries but also to add value through specialisation in existing ones”. He cites “software businesses . . . or tourism ventures that focus on small numbers of tourists staying for longer and spending more”.
New Zealand’s geographically isolated regions do need to diversify – to grow dwindling populations, increase tourism and encourage entrepreneurialism. They need to find innovative ways to encourage the young to stay and somehow lure skilled migrants from major centres.
They are already working on this of course – look at the West Coast Economic Development Action Plan or the Tai Poutini West Coast Growth study or the Southland Regional Development Strategy.
They’re also all competing for that “slice of Mr Jones’ Regional Development Fund” – which Mr Hague dangles like a golden carrot.
So, to suggest West Coast leaders have fed people “a myth” about the contribution of mining, or that West Coasters are overestimating that contribution to their economy, does the community a grave disservice.
West Coasters haven’t made a living for generations in one of New Zealand’s most challenging locations without understanding what keeps the wheels of their regional economy turning.
Last Sunday, an estimated 5,000 West Coasters used the opening of the new Taramakau Bridge, near Greymouth, to protest the Government’s ban on any future mining on conservation land. Given the West Coast population is about 32,400, that’s around 16 per cent of the locals out in force.
Mr Hague comments: “From the pictures I saw on television and online it looked like at least 300 to 400 (though well short of the thousands breathlessly claimed in some reports).”
That ‘breathless’ figure was widely reported, from TV to Stuff and the Otago Daily Times – and is backed up by the Greymouth Star’s video report showing a significant number of peaceful protestors streaming by throughout the report. While they weren’t individually counted, there were certainly many thousands of people there in support.
Mr Hague continues: “Mining is now a small part of the West Coast economy” – with higher numbers working in tourism ventures. Tourism certainly is growing. In 2016, 870,000 people visited the region. West Coast Tourism has a target of attracting 1.1m visitors by 2021.
However, as Westland mayor Bruce Smith has noted, "the average mining wage is $114,000 but the average tourism wage only $40,000". Despite tourism growth, West Coasters still marched last Sunday, in higher numbers than work in the sector – I’d suggest because they know mining is an important part of the mix that makes up the West Coast economy.
No-one, not community leaders, not West Coasters and not the minerals sector, is promoting mining as the gold star solution to the region’s economic challenges. Grey District Mayor Tony Kokshoorn has described the decline of coal mining as “painful” to the region and said the prospect of no new alluvial gold mines would be “that much tougher”. He isn’t saying the sky will fall, he’s simply pointing out a ban will add to the challenges West Coasters face.
Mining is part of the mix. We have mineral resources on the West Coast and elsewhere in New Zealand, and we should continue to develop them responsibly.
The minerals sector wants to work with Government to support regional growth. Mining can and should play a role in that – with conditions in place under which the sector can continue to invest and society can be confident that investigation into any proposed activities will be stringent and the highest standards maintained.
I don’t believe anyone is more passionate about the West Coast’s unique landscape than its residents. Most of those marchers will have grown up around mining – and understand its relatively small footprint. As Gray District Councillor Peter Haddock points out, the West Coast is 3500sqkm and has only 15sqkm of mines.
Mining makes highly productive use of very limited amounts of land. Ultimately, much of the land is rehabilitated, so the final footprint is even smaller.
No-one disputes fossil fuels contribute to emissions. However, until an economically viable alternative is found, coal remains essential to the New Zealand economy – from providing essential back up at the Huntly Power station to enabling Fonterra to make milk powder. Other forms of heat are more expensive and would make New Zealand less competitive.
New Zealand exports coking coal – essential to the production of steel. While industry is developing ways to reduce emissions and more steel is being recycled, there is currently no plan available globally to make steel, at scale, without coal.
Grey District Councillor Peter Haddock has said 860 tonnes of coal was used to produce steel for the new Taramakau bridge – replacing a former road/rail bridge which had been the site of 25 accidents between 2005 and 2015.
It would be naïve to suggest the West Coast can achieve concerted tourism growth without improved roading to make travelling safer and more efficient for increased traffic volumes. You can’t make concrete or build roads, bridges or homes without mining for aggregates.
And here’s the pivotal point which Mr Hague and many other anti-mining advocates conveniently choose to ignore.
There are stringent measures in place, via the Resource Management Act (RMA) and the Environment Court to weigh up social, environmental and economic impacts of any proposed mining project before a decision is made on whether it can go ahead. In practice, the conditions placed on specific mining operators mean that no mining can take place in New Zealand without appropriate environmental protections already being in place and closely monitored throughout the lifespan of the mining operation. A particular feature of this regime is that it is independent and not subject to the political whims of the day, until now.
If that system is faulty, fix it. If not, shouldn’t we trust in it to make the right decisions based on the evidence in each individual case, for our environment, our communities and our regional economies?
There needs to be open community consultation on the future of mining on conservation land. Education is required, too, because most members of the public are not aware of the different classifications of conservation land, nor the nature and impact of current mining on conservation land. Good information, based on science and evidence, is essential for good policy.
Through Government, the mining sector and the regions working together honestly and openly, we could achieve continued social and environmental licence to operate for the benefit of our economy, nationally and regionally.
Chris Baker is Chief Executive of Straterra, the industry group representing the New Zealand minerals sector