Eugenie Sage’s use of the Overseas Investment Act to constrain gold mining at Waihi marks a new low in an increasingly bitter, oppose-at-all costs planning environment.
The Green Party minister – against the advice of officials and her coalition colleagues – rejected OceanaGold’s bid to buy farm land for a new tailings dam. She saw no economic benefit in extending the life of the mine – and the jobs of its 360 staff – by up to nine years.
But most alarming was her claimed lack of confidence in the Resource Management Act to protect internationally regarded wetlands from the flow-on effects of future mine development.
How should Waikato Regional Council feel about that? Or the Thames-Coromandel and Hauraki district councils, which have just updated their district plans – including new rules for gold mining in the area?
How about all the firms and ratepayers who submitted on OceanaGold’s consent application to continue mining at Waihi for another 12 years? Why bother participating in major regional planning decisions if a Crown minister can subvert the outcomes of proper local planning processes?
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Three weeks after the decision, Chris Baker, chief executive of mining lobby group Straterra, is still angered by it.
He says there was no logical, evidence-based construct on which it could have been made. That makes it worse even than the government’s ill-conceived ban on new offshore gas exploration, which is expected to prolong industrial coal use in New Zealand.
“It looked like the reasoning of someone who had decided an outcome, and then put words around it to allow that outcome to still pop-out,” Baker said of Sage’s decision.
“It’s a gross abuse of power.”
Another disturbing aspect of Sage’s decision – also being displayed by protestors aiming to “stop” the New Zealand Minerals Forum in Dunedin this week – is a tendency to blanket her arguments against mining with the language of climate change.
Yes, more mining will mean more emissions, but only in the same way that trucking more rock, or more logs, or more milk, means more emissions.
Extractive industries are also somehow “inherently unsustainable” in Sage’s eyes, even though every modern town and city relies on the steel, aggregate and concrete they produce.
Energy-intensive industries are also bad, despite government policy encouraging their development to take advantage of this country’s burgeoning renewable power supplies.
A minister – from a party claiming climate change as their raison d’etre – should understand that energy-intensive activities are not necessarily emissions-intensive.
But when push comes to shove maybe it’s easier to just oppose and block rather than provide genuine leadership and engage in planning and decision-making processes that deliver the best collective outcomes.
The groups pledging to stop this week’s “coal conference” in Dunedin have no interest in informed decision-making.
To them the forum is only to “promote coal, and other polluting industries,” according to their campaign website. All mining is contributing to the “climate and ecological emergency” and must be stopped – even when the resulting products are essential for the wind turbines, EV batteries and solar panels they want vastly more of to help address global climate change.
Interestingly, forum topics include making silicon nitride fibre from coal, potential lithium deposits on the North Island, the use of biomass in industrial heat, and iwi interests in mining.
Forest & Bird chief executive Kevin Hague was to have participated in a panel on the role of mining in New Zealand. But he pulled out last week concerned the growing number of protest groups – Forest & Bird allies – might construe his involvement as departing from shared policy positions.
Straterra’s Baker is disappointed by Hague’s choice. He says it reinforces the identity politics that tend to prevent “mature discussion” of difficult topics in New Zealand.
“It’s a really lost opportunity to present another view, and to be able to do it in a constructive and considered way, as opposed to alarmist protest.”
The government is looking at ways to improve the Resource Management Act and is preparing a 10-year resource strategy to help frame future mineral and petroleum development.
Baker says the government’s strategy work appears “genuine and material.” The current regulatory environment is not an easy one for miners, but the incumbent operators have, in most areas, have managed “reasonably well.”
He says that is largely down to the independent and evidence-based decision-making required under the RMA.
“We’re not blessed with minerals like Australia is but we’ve got a lot of potential that is not being well-tapped.
“Hopefully this strategy will develop the criteria under which we can be confident as a society that these resources are developed in an environmentally acceptable way.”
The RMA is “a long way from perfect, but it’s got a lot of good features and we can make it work better,” he said.
“It is infinitely better than putting decisions in the lap of a politician.”