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Peter Wilson: Government In For A Fight Over Mining

Peter Wilson
Peter Wilson
Gerry Brownlee
Gerry Brownlee

It was never going to be easy. Mining in conservation land is highly sensitive, there are lobby groups totally committed to opposing it and at least one of them has a mole embedded in the decision-making machinery.

The Government, however, has made matters even more difficult by the way it has managed, or mis-managed, the process of deciding what it wants to do.

We know the big picture. Economic Development Minister Gerry Brownlee explained that. Unlocking the country's mineral wealth is part of the grand plan to enhance economic growth and set New Zealand on course to catch up with Australia.

Last year he ordered a stocktake of minerals in the conservation estate, including those parts of it which are in schedule four of the Crown Minerals Act and are protected from mining.

The stocktake estimated the value of the minerals at a conservative $140 billion, which is serious money.

Prime Minister John Key said "significant" parts of schedule four land could be removed from protection and a discussion document would be released setting out the Governments proposals.

That was early February, and the discussion document was expected to be quickly available. It wasn't, and there is still no firm date. As of last week, the best the Government could promise was "in due course".

It allowed a vacuum to develop, which in politics is never a good thing because opponents will surely fill it.

In this case it was Forest and Bird, who came in armed with leaked information and announced the Government had planned to remove half a million hectares from schedule four but, fearing a public backlash, had trimmed it down to 7000ha.

It said the Government wanted to mine in three national parks, and in Parliament the Greens said a $4 million subsidy was in the pipeline for mining companies to prospect.

None of this has been denied. Key says the leaked information "isn't necessarily accurate" and he wouldn't confirm the Green's $4m subsidy claim. But nothing has been denied, which led to the inevitable conclusion that Forest and Bird, and the Greens, were right.

Key, under considerable pressure, keeps repeating that everyone has to wait for the discussion paper. At that point, he asserts, people will see how balanced the plan is, and how carefully mining has been weighed up against environmental responsibility.

If he is so sure about that, he should have released the discussion document.

Instead, the confusion has been allowed to continue. Key accused the media of being hysterical, later transferring the hysteria to Forest and Bird.

Of course Forest and Bird are freaking out. It is what they do when, as they believe, pristine conservation land is under threat.

Then there was the over-the-top decision to hold an inquiry into where the leaks came from, which had the effect of creating even more publicity about Forest and Bird's claims.

What appears to be happening is that the Government knows it has to present a really good case, and it isn't yet sure how to do that.

Ministers talk about the "surgical removal" of high value minerals, burrowing under conservation land to get at them without digging up the surface.

The New Zealand Minerals Association's Doug Gordon says the law doesn't allow open pit mining on schedule four land, it has to be accessed from outside the area.

"You can only do underground in schedule four. That means what is likely, if at all, is high value, low volume mining of base or precious metal, or a rare earth mineral," he said.

"It isn't ironsand mining or aggregate quarrying."

Forest and Bird's advocate Kevin Hackwell argues that national parks must be left alone because New Zealand's clean, green image depends on them.

"It's the stuff we sell overseas as 100 percent pure New's valuable to our economy where it is, as it is," he said.

The Government task is to show that mining is compatible with conservation -- and that is something it is obviously having trouble with.

If it can prove that the minerals it wants to extract are of sufficiently high value to make it worthwhile taking them out with minimal damage, it will probably be able to win the public opinion war. And it doesn't want to come out with that public discussion document until it know to has a good case to present.

There will be torrents of reaction to it. Outfits like Forest and Bird have only just started, when they know for sure what the Government intends doing, they can really get their teeth into it.

The Greens will be horrified whatever transpires. For them, it is a really good opportunity to show their supporters they really care about the environment and haven't lost sight of their reason for existing.

The Government knows it is in for a fight over this. It keeps pointing out that 82 mining concessions already exist on conservation land, so why should there be so much fuss over a few more?

It is because of schedule four. It is about exactly where the land is that it wants to mine, and how it intends mining it.

Until it explains that, it is going to continue to be harassed by opponents who are free to raise worst-case scenarios and paint bleak pictures of devastation.

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