Mining Our Natural Potential: not specious, just stupid

An open letter to Gerry Brownlee, surgically exploring his cranium, and finding some fossils inside


Your stocktakeMaximising Our Mineral Potential, is not an exercise in balancing the environment and the economy. This is an exercise in what you think you can get away with.

I thought I would dismiss it as “specious”, but “specious” is the wrong word. This is simply stupid.

Last August, you would not rule out mining in environmentally sensitive places, if the minerals beneath were worth enough. You said we were hysterical then, too. Your proposal to facilitate that, and your advocacy of it, are written down now, for all to read. Now, you’re refusing to rule out open cast mining in such places. Although, case by case, you’re backing down, forgive us for being a bit worried.

In fact, this is not hysteria. I’ve listened to your argument. I understand it very well. I accept that 7,058 hectares is a tiny parcel of land in the scheme of things, that the damaged portions of such land might be smaller yet, that they would be subject to consideration on a case by case basis, and that approvals would have to meet National Parks Act and Resource Management Act safeguards.

I understand all that. I simply don’t agree with it. Philosophically, you and I are on different planets. Indeed, I wish you were, since you persist in trying to dig up this one.

Included on your list of prospective minerals are coal and peat and lignite (the latter for conversion to fuel and fertiliser). These are carbon-intensive substances and processes; the cost is not only the mine, but all the downstream costs. In particular, lignite for fertiliser is a multi-hit on the environment: it emits carbon in conversion, nitrous oxide on application – both of which are greenhouse gases – and runs off into our water. It would be irresponsible to support any such mining proposal, in any location; therefore, I do not. In Schedule 4, where the coal (Paparoa) and peat (Coromandel) are sought, the insult is particularly acute.

It might, perhaps, be different if you were talking about a very short term, closely managed strategy to ease New Zealand’s transport fuel dependency through peak oil. It is clear from your document that this is not the case:

“If extracted at a rate of 20 million tonnes per year, the lignite resource could provide feedstock for most of New Zealand’s transport fuel and petrochemical requirements for 200 years or more,” it says.

It also mentions carbon capture. From what I read, this is still an elusive technology. Let’s nail down carbon capture first, then we can talk about the mining... maybe. But an economy re-geared to clean tech and sustainable farming practices would be better, then we could just leave the carbon in the ground.

Rare earth elements and precious minerals (eg, gold-silver) are the other gleams in your eye. Mining these is not environmentally responsible or sustainable either, but it is true the equation is different from the fossil fuels, or could be, if high value was proved. But all we have established to date is their highly speculative value. As you said yourself:

“Look, I think the numbers are always going to be all over the show. Until you get something out of the ground, you simply don’t know what the story is.”

Set off against that gamble, we have non-controversial conservation values. The government is not further investigating the potential of Kahurangi and Aspiring National Parks, which will remain untouched in Schedule 4. These, I deduce, were considered too iconic. And yet, Fiordland is still in the gun. In fact, almost every tabulated item on pp 9-10 of your stocktake has high, very high, or iconic conservation values, including half a dozen UNESCO world heritage sites. I do not support any appropriation of such land for your purposes. Therefore, there’s no point expending several more millions of our dollars investigating it.

Kahurangi and Aspiring are the reasons the stocktake reeks of what you can get away with. Your fellow Cabinet members, I imagine, wanted to be able to point to compromise, to be seen to be reasonable, and centrist. But compromise, on Schedule 4, is not good enough. That Schedule was itself a compromise. It is only 13% of New Zealand. You can dig up 87% of the country if you want to, including most of the conservation estate.

In the Otahu ecological and Parakawai geological areas, your stocktake has identified “excellent potential” for medium grade medium tonnage gold-silver vein deposits. However, the conservation values, respectively, include “valuable habitat for native species” and “distinctive geological features and valuable habitat for threatened species”. And yet, their removal is proposed. I cannot tell you how angry this makes me. It is greed.

Great Barrier has “regenerating vegetation”. Did you stop to think why this is? It is “regenerating” because we’ve plundered it before. This is not a reason to do it again. Even via a so-called surgical incision, mining on that island cannot help but transform its unique, unindustrialised, off-grid character. I do not support it.

You refer to Hauraki Hill in the Coromandel, the sole example I could find in the stocktake of an area infested with weed species, and a former landfill site. A number of times now, I have heard you and others extrapolate this to Schedule 4 at large, saying parts of Schedule 4 are just gorse. But by your own account, in the stocktake, this part of the Coromandel is not analogous to Schedule 4 protected areas in any other part of the country. I really abhor that sort of intellectual dishonesty.

Listing conservation and cultural values, as the stocktake does at pp 21-32, is not the same as weighing them. The only evidence I can find of any sort of balancing exercise is in your own foreword, which says:

“The Government has … decided that the conservation values in the vast majority of Schedule 4 areas do outweigh the mineral potential”. And yet, we bulldoze on.

Environmentally sensitive surgical mining is nonsense. The hole in the ground is small, perhaps, but you are tippy-toeing round all the rubbish that comes out. Since it must affect the character of the surrounding areas, the Prime Minister’s analogy was apt, if unfortunate.

You say Schedule 4 holds 40% of the mineral wealth. Surely, then, it would have made more sense to start with the non-Schedule 60%. The reason, I think, for targeting Schedule 4 is this: there are not people, voters, living in national parks. The 60% is uncomfortably close to voters’ own back yards. As is the Coromandel. However, the Coromandel, I think, for you, is about fighting old battles – removing from the Schedule land that National did not want put into it. The broader protection conferred on all Coromandel conservation land, relative to other parts of the country, is a bit of a historical accident, somewhat difficult to defend. But since you were last in government, the world has moved on, in so many ways.

Now to the philosophy. As I’ve said before, you’re dressing up 19th century colonial thinking in the 21st century language of “step change”. From the stocktake, here are two more examples. First, the conservation fund to be established from mining royalties. I don’t care how lucrative it is. It is an apology of a proposal – a platform for mining companies to buy their way into and out of tight environmental corners.

Second, this is only your opening bid. Further proposals for localised removal of land from Schedule 4 may be made in future, after more surveying and prospecting. I think that this exposes misunderstanding of the character and purpose of these precious places – that they only sit there, on ice as it were, until we can find a better use for them. Once the threshold has been satisfied for inclusion in Schedule 4, it should be sacrosanct, a national heritage or taonga, even world heritage in some cases.

This piecemeal approach of yours is going to be a running sore on the government. Apart from anything else it is, politically, a really stupid strategy.

Your biggest problem here is the sloppy, disingenuous nature of the proposal. We simply cannot trust you, or the analysis; the only thing undermined here is your own credibility. On that basis, I am not prepared to support any part of it. Taking what you’ve told us at its highest, I can count on my thumbs areas where I think a case of any sort of merit might be made. Those are not going to lift us from the economic doldrums, I’m afraid.

To recap: this is bad for the environment, our brand, your politics, and your party’s, and it is far from clear it will fatten the public purse. It is fossilised thinking, in every sense.