By all means, let’s have a conservation conversation about mining for minerals in Schedule 4 protected areas – without hysteria, or spin

I’m trying hard to suppress my natural tendency to hysteria, while giving free rein to the cynicism born of experience.

Last Tuesday Gerry Brownlee, who is the Minister of Energy and Resources, gave a speech announcing that the government has embarked on a three-pronged work programme:

  1. A stock take of schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act 1991, which protects national parks, marine reserves, wildlife sanctuaries, world heritage areas, and so on, from mining access arrangements or exploration activities. According to Brownlee, millions of hectares of land were added to schedule 4 in the term of the last government. This government wants to be sure that all of the land in the schedule meets the very high conservation standards that should be the litmus test.
  2. Mineral-related activities may be permitted on some Department of Conservation (DoC) land, by way of an access arrangement. DoC’s processes for administering access arrangements differ from one part of the country to another, in ways that may or may not be arbitrary. The government wants to have a look at that, with a view to tidying it up.
  3. The Crown has distinct interests in both conservation and mineral wealth. In considering any reclassification of DoC land (before upgrading it to schedule 4 status, for example), Crown Minerals and the Minister of Energy ought to be consulted.

As we’ve heard, innumerable times, the government is trying to strike the right balance between two economic interests: mineral extraction and the 100% pure brand. Decisions are not at this stage being made about particular pieces of land; changes to land designations would need public consultation. This is process-focused fact-finding.

If that was as far as it went, I’d say, fair enough. Relatively innocuous; perfectly sensible. For anyone else worried that Minister of Conservation Tim Groser, who said the same things as Gerry Brownlee, was sounding mighty like a wolf in sheep’s clothing – or perhaps a rabbit to Brownlee’s python, mesmerised by the mantra of economic growth – relax, he’s just misunderstood.

However, that wasn’t as far as it went. The Minister for Energy and Resources enlivened my day, unintentionally I’m sure, with a series of resourceful and energetic ministerial own goals.

Brownlee cited a World Bank report, that ranked New Zealand second only to Saudi Arabia in terms of natural wealth per capita. Presumably the same report that, coincidentally or otherwise, featured in a Don Brash speech to the Auckland University of Technology on 30 July 2009: Kunte et al, Estimating National Wealth: Methodology and Results (January 1998).

The way Brash used the report made sense (he argued that, because New Zealand is in fact significantly wealthier than Australia when natural capital is the measure, Helen Clark’s habitual reference to Australia’s mineral wealth to explain away economic under performance is unconvincing). The way Brownlee is using it, woven into the fabric of an argument about harvesting our own minerals, is spin. He makes it sound as if the natural capital ranking and our mineral wealth endowment are the same thing.

In fact, our ranking was overwhelmingly attributable to pasture and crop land (68%) and, ironically, protected areas (19%). The subsoil assets category comprised a tiny proportion (3%). By comparison, subsoil assets were 26% of Australia’s total wealth, with a per capita dollar value seven times greater than ours. If the report was correctly used, it would tend to undermine Brownlee’s argument. To try to express it in business terms for this business-friendly government: aren’t we more likely to find wealth and opportunity by maximising our point of difference, than trying to emulate someone else?

Brownlee has said, airily, that he also had “some different figures”. Assuming he meant the figures cited in his speech, since he hasn’t supplied any others: that’s $140 billion worth of zinc, lead, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten. To that you can add lignite worth an additional $100 billion. Ridiculously, he went on to raise the spectre of greenhouse gases, talking up the desirability of quarrying locally to reduce road transport diesel emissions. “Ridiculous” because – according to that reputable journalistic source, Wikipedia – lignite is the lowest-ranked most polluting kind of coal. [Ed: Encyclopaedia Britannic backs up Wikipedia's low opinion of lignite here; it seems it is eve "subject to spontaneous combustion"!]

If the minister knows what our mineral wealth is worth, or can find experts to tell him, he must know roughly where it is and in what concentrations. Let’s have the list then, so we can have an informed discussion. In its absence, one has to assume that the list is being withheld for a reason. Might it be because some of the items on it would fuel alarmist green tendencies? Perhaps because there are clashes in some or all cases between high conservation values and high mineral values?

Greenpeace and the Green Party did some educated guessing, and came up with this list: the Coromandel Peninsula, Paparoa National Park, Kahurangi National Park, Aspiring National Park, Waituna Lagoon and the Awarua Wetlands. That’s almost the whole South Island. Far more illuminating was the minister’s response to this question from Mary Wilson on National Radio: Would you consider mining land, despite its high conservation significance, if the minerals underneath were worth enough? He could have just said “no”. What he did was hedge, and tail off into silly diversionary tactics.

Senior ministers don’t come out punching hard, in a fight they’ve voluntarily bought, which they must know is going to be a knock-down drag-out fight, without a degree of commitment to something or other. Tim Groser invoked this image, allegedly dear to the public heart, of a Conservation minister who “goes around with knobbly knees and shorts and releases kiwi into the wild. I am a champion releaser of kiwi into the wild … but I’m sorry, we’ve got to grow up”. Gerry Brownlee liberally salted his soundbites with words like “hysteria” and “paranoia”, and blustered on Morning Report about how what we’d just heard was an “incredibly biased piece of reporting but not anything more or less than I expect from Radio New Zealand”.

Brownlee offered three examples of how “best practice” mining can be reconciled with respect for the environment. Read them for yourself, as I did, with a sinking heart. Read them again, and marvel at the magical thinking about the consolations of “productive pasture”, and “recreational lake and park”, and a road, so we can all zoom up in our cars to gawp at the DoC estate.

The World Bank report makes clear what we all already ought to know: our brand, and the nature of our wealth, are a world apart from our neighbour’s. We can do better than trundling around after elder sibling Kevin Rudd like a hero-worshipping toddler with a blanket. In the inimitable words of Mr Groser: “I’m sorry, but we need to grow up”.

Comments (4)

by Judy Martin on August 31, 2009
Judy Martin

Go Claire! Brownlee and Groser need to be called on their defensive posturing.

by Matthew Whitehead on September 03, 2009
Matthew Whitehead

Yeah, the position he's advocating (and let's be clear, talking of "keeping our options open" for something nobody else has even suggested is advocacy) is just bizzare. It's not in our environmental, social, financial, or national interests in any way to do it. The only people who would benefit are the people who own the mining operation- and they'd probably demand friendly policy concessions in return. We can do business in smarter, cleaner ways than that.

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