Another coal hole, another snail fail

Are national parks the things we have when we can’t find anything else to do with them? The Denniston mining proposal is like the Schedule 4 mining proposal, with bonus snails

The Denniston plateau, which is near Mount Augustus, has its own population of threatened giant snails.

Denniston is not a national park. It is not in Schedule 4. It is conservation land, that should have been part of a national park, the Kahurangi National Park. That status was withheld, because of the coal beneath.

My colleague Debs Martin blogs on Denniston here: its "irreplaceable" conservation values, the snails (Powelliphanta patrickensis, cousin to Powelliphanta augusta), and Forest & Bird’s exchanges with the parties to date -- DOC, and the mining applicant.

Its conservation values are those of Schedule 4, according to Forest & Bird.

Bathurst Resources (Buller Coal) wants to open-cast mine 200 hectares of the plateau, for 6.1 million tonnes of coal. New Zealand’s total production of coal in 2010 was 4.6 million tonnes; at the proposed rate of extraction this mine could lift coal production by somewhere between 43% and 63%, depending whose stats you use, and how fast it comes out of the ground. Bathurst has mining permits for an additional 50-80 million tonnes from the plateau; it wants to build a processing plant on the economic assumption that this coal would be extracted. In short, a lot of coal.

It would not only destroy the conservation values of the plateau, it would raise New Zealand’s emissions profile, and the climate’s burden, itself a conservation challenge.

Because this is conservation land, the applicants will need both resource consent, and access agreement by the land owner, DOC.

The Resource Management Act does not let the decision-maker take full account of climate change; though Denniston submitter Jeanette Fitzsimons argued that it should.

The government, on abandoning Schedule 4, signalled implicitly and explicitly that the remainder of DOC land was now more likely to be mined; whether that would be consistent with the terms of the Conservation Act in this instance has yet to be determined.

Just up the road from Denniston is the Mokihinui river gorge, where Meridian Energy is pursuing its Mokihinui hydro proposal. The Mokihinui river gorge is conservation land too, stewardship land. DOC has declined access to it.

Stewardship land was supposed to be, according to the former Minister who created it, a “statutory holding pen”, where land that had not been classified prior to the1987 establishment of the conservation estate would be held, and eventually dealt with. It has been waiting 25 years.

Failure to classify these pieces of land in accordance with their conservation values is not only a failure to treat like alike. The resulting need to defend them, by battling it out in the Environment Court, is economically dumb. Next year, the Mokihinui applicants and appellants (NGOs including Forest & Bird, and DOC) will spend four months on appeal in the Environment Court, where Meridian has marshalled somewhere between 50 and 60 experts.

Last year, a petition of Quentin Duthie et al asked Parliament to consider inclusion of further areas in Schedule 4: World Heritage areas, ecological areas, national reserves, and perhaps, marine mammal sanctuaries. Part of the Te Wahipounamu South Westland World Heritage Area presently falls outside Schedule 4.

A couple of normally pretty reliable little birds told me today that a mining company is chasing fracking permits, in and around the World Heritage Area. Fracking is the new favourite way of trashing the environment for fossil fuel.

As regards the ecological areas and national reserves, their eventual review and inclusion had been recommended by a Parliamentary select committee in 1997, establishing Schedule 4. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment had also recommended another look at the Schedule.

The Local Government and Environment select committee, Labour and Green Parties dissenting, recommended that the petition should not proceed. In summary, the reason was the economic value of the excluded areas, and consequent reluctance to put them beyond reach. I was there, for the hearing, earlier in the year, so I can confirm that what follows is indeed what the committee heard:

The ministry [for Economic Development] told us that research into processes for mining iron-ore sand from the seabed is in its infancy, and it would not wish to restrict unduly an industry that could be of economic benefit to New Zealand by adding marine mammal sanctuaries to Schedule 4.

The department [of Conservation] considers that adding the remaining part of Te Wāhipounamu to the schedule could make it difficult to obtain rock for river and road protection works in south Westland, adding to the already high cost of such works.

The committee did also take into account conservation values: it was concerned that adding areas of variable value, as a class, could have the unintended effect of devaluing Schedule 4.

DOC told the committee, in an oral submission that I heard, that it was unwilling to resource a review of stewardship land.

It was an interesting morning. Ministry for Economic Development officials sat down, and advised the committee that there was little they needed to say; the committee had already been so well briefed by the Department of Conservation (for prosperity).

“In response to the petitioner’s suggestion that the department undertake a comprehensive assessment of the conservation estate to see if public conservation land has been appropriately classified, the department said that it would be costly and time-consuming.” They would consider it, officials said, if it would make a real practical difference to the management of the land.

Both Denniston and the Mokihinui are examples where it would make a real practical difference: resources poured into litigation could be spent on something else, like pest control, or evaluating the conservation significance of Denniston. DOC did not appear at the Denniston resource consent hearing; it was not a good use of resources. I couldn't agree more, but I don't mean DOC's resources.

Is this what we expect? I suggest that when tens of thousands -- 50,000 -- marched down Queen Street, and when the government agreed to leave alone Schedule 4, it said that some things are beyond price. It said we would not trade them, for 30 pieces of silver, or whatever.

It did not say that national parks are the things we have when we can’t find anything better to do with them; and mining is the thing we have when we can’t be arsed finding out what this bit of nature is actually worth.

Disclosure: Claire Browning is a Forest & Bird conservation advocate. The Bathurst Denniston proposal is a campaign this year for Forest & Bird, and the petition of Quentin Duthie et al was a Forest & Bird e-petition.