Seabed mining critics furious after Australian company pulls out of hearings for controversial project off Taranaki coast

By Robin Martin for RNZ

Opponents of seabed mining are furious an Australian company has pulled out of consent hearings for a controversial project off the Taranaki coast.

They fear Trans Tasman Resources (TTR) will instead now take advantage of the government's fast track consenting process.

TTR announced just before the Easter break that it was pulling out of Environmental Protection Authority's reconsideration of its application to mine 50 million tonnes of seabed every year for 30 years off the coast of Taranaki.

The company wants to extract iron, titanium and vanadium 36 kilometres off the coast from Patea in the Taranaki Bight. It believes it can be done environmentally safely and create a billion dollar industry.

The project was back in front of the EPA after years of legal battles and a Supreme Court ruling that said there were not enough conditions to protect the environment.

In a three-sentence statement, the TTR said its application was complex and it would update stakeholders when the next steps for this "nationally significant project" were finalised.

Kiwis Against Seabed Mining spokesperson Cindy Baxter said the company's withdrawal was spineless.

"I think it's pretty cowardly. The writing was on the wall for them, that they weren't going to be able to prove that their activity would cause no material harm, which was the Supreme Court's test.

"So, I think instead of getting a solid 'no', they possibly considered it was better to drop out halfway through these hearings, and go for the fast track process."

She feared what that could mean.

"This will be a real test of the fast track process. Will the government ride roughshod over the Supreme Court's quashing of the consents?

"I can imagine that with the fast track without any proper scrutiny, that an expert panel could just take TTR's evidence as verbatim, as read, as real and could push it through."

Greenpeace seabed mining campaigner Juressa Lee believed TTR was prompted to pull out of the EPA process.

"It's highly likely that TTR is now banking on the Luxon government's fast track approvals process. Actually we know that they are, but I think it's even possible they've been given a heads-up somehow that they might be on the list of projects tipped to be fast tracked."

The company told RNZ last month it hoped it would be on that list which was being drawn up by an expert panel.

Lee did not believe the battle was won yet.

"There's still a fight ahead. It just looks different. When you're invested $85 million into pursuing a project over the course of a decade you don't just quit mid-hearing. You've changed tack and something has given them the confidence to withdraw from one process and change tack."

TTR chairperson Alan Eggers said the company was frustrated with the time the EPA process was taking, its cost and scope.

He was not counting on the fast track legislation.

"We're not sure about fast tracking legislation we'll have to wait and see how that evolves and that legislation has got somewhere to go I believe before it would appear."

But he had not given up on the concept either.

"Absolutely not. We still have a valid mining licence and exploration licences and a very large resource out there and a significant investment in exploration and technology and we'll be continuing with the project."

Eggers said if the mining project was not fast tracked there could be other options under the government's plans to overhaul resource management laws.

"There are a number of options in front of us including we could reapplying under the revised legislation, so we can look at that.

"In the meantime we can just get on with developing our resources out there and putting it to the Government and the public of New Zealand that it's a project of national significance and we'd like to get on with it."

The EPA - which had two more hearings scheduled for the TTR application - said it would provide updates when it had further information.