Six months overdue: Mining on conservation land discussion document still not released

The Government's policy banning new mining on conservation land is floundering, frustrating activists who are concerned the delays are causing irreversible damage to New Zealand's environment.

In November 2017, shortly after grasping power, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced in her Speech from the Throne one measure her Government would take to safeguard the environment.

"There will be no new mines on conservation land," she declared, followed by a statement from Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage confirming "the new Government will strengthen the protection for public conservation land by making it off-limits for new mining."

Environmentalists across Aotearoa praised the declaration, including anti-mining group Coromandel Watchdog and its spokesperson Augusta Macassey-Pickard, who was grateful the Government was addressing something she says devastates native animals and resources.

It's a sentiment reflected in Sage's statement, where she said Kiwis "expect to see our conservation lands and their wild landscapes and indigenous plants and wildlife protected from being dug up by bulldozers and diggers".

But nearly a year and a half on, little has been announced about realising Ardern and Sage's ambition of ridding conservation land of that machinery.

Eugenie Sage.
Eugenie Sage. Photo credit: Newshub

In May last year, Sage said public views would be sought, with the Government to release a discussion document in September 2018.

The purpose of the discussion document was to allow for consultation on the policy from relevant stakeholders, such as mining companies, employees, activists, iwi and councils, she said.

But six months on from September, no discussion document has been released.

When asked about the delay in November, Minister Sage told Newshub consultation would begin "in the coming months," and that "Ministers recognise it is a significant issue and wish to put forward good information for the public consider".

Months on, the Minister's position hasn't changed.

"We're working on it. While it is taking longer than originally planned, it's important to get the information and options right, so it is worth taking the time required to do that," she tells Newshub in March.

Macassey-Pickard says the delay is extremely disappointing.

"It is hugely frustrating to be honest," she says. "This delay is just confounding really."

"There is this public statement being made about protecting our conservation land from mining, but there is no substance behind it, there is nothing happening."

She was also unsure if a discussion document was necessary to begin with.

"It just kind of feels real bizarre that they have said no new mines on conservation land, then a year later they have said 'oh we are going to consult on this', and now six months later, nothing," she says.

"The Speech from the Throne was unequivocal... and then, what, six or seven months later they suddenly announce consultation, which in itself is quite strange".

She also questioned why banning new offshore oil and gas exploration happened within six months of the Government being formed, without it being signalled in the Speech from the Throne, but something clearly signposted hadn't.

Forest & Bird chief executive Kevin Hague expressed similar queries.

"We were delighted when the Government announced that it was ending mining on conservation land. But six months down the track we're still losing New Zealand's native species to giant holes in the ground," Hague said in May 2018.

"While we welcome consultation we'd warn the Government against a slow process."

Now, he says: "I am not entirely clear what is to be discussed in a discussion document."

Red flag to industry

The delay concerns Macassey-Pickard as she believes the ban's announcement sent out a "red flag" to the mining industry to begin applying for new consents to mine before the ban is enforced.

She said the Government should have introduced a moratorium on new mining activities immediately following the Speech from the Throne.

"I can't see why a moratorium wasn't put on when the announcement was first made a year and a half ago, because that to me would be logical," she says.

"I would strongly, strongly advocate for a moratorium to be put out because they have raised a red flag to the industry… but they haven't done anything about it, so naturally the industry has jumped on in there."

But Sage said in May there would be "no change to the status quo until final decisions" had been made.

Hague is also concerned about the significant window of warning the industry has had.

"It is disappointing that the process is taking longer than the Government first intended," he says.

"The reason that a delay is potentially problematic is that it means that mining companies have ended up with this window in which to begin a process that, once the policy takes effect, will no longer be permitted.

Kevin Hague.
Kevin Hague. Photo credit: Getty

"That means that areas on public conservation land are potentially still vulnerable and may be particularly vulnerable during this time... [the delay] is putting nature... at risk of further exploitation."

One site of concern for Macassey-Pickard is near the Wharekirauponga Track on the Coromandel Peninsula, where mining company OceanaGold uncovered new gold and silver during exploration in February.

Following the discovery, OceanaGold's chief executive Mick Wilkes said it was significant.

"This quality resource further demonstrates the strong organic growth potential of our business and the prudent investments we're making in exploration to create value for shareholders," he said.

"This significant discovery at [Wharekirauponga] is also a tremendous outcome for New Zealand, as it has the potential to create additional employment opportunities and generate significant socio-economic benefits for the country and communities."

Drilling at Wharekirauponga.
Drilling at Wharekirauponga. Photo credit: OceanaGold

While the company hasn't announced mining work for the area yet, there are concerns that may happen before the ban occurs.

But OceanaGold's Waihi senior community advisor Kit Wilson told Newshub even if the company decided to go ahead with mining, it requires a thorough public consultation process beforehand, identifying if the activity would be acceptable on the conservation land.

"Permits last for 18 years at most and the Wharekirauponga permit is approaching that time when the minerals rights need to be converted based on what we have found, to meet the requirements of the minerals permitting regulations," he said.

"We will be required to convert the exploration permit to a mining permit before the former expires if we wish to keep on working."

He said even with a mining permit, the company would need to seek permission to go onto the land and mine after consultation with relevant stakeholders.

A heli-transportable drill rig at Wharekirauponga.
A heli-transportable drill rig at Wharekirauponga. Photo credit: OceanaGold

Wilson said OceanaGold was aware of the no new mines policy announcement, but any of its future mining opportunities would be underground and leave land undisturbed on the surface - opportunities it is hopeful will remain.

He also said there are still years of exploratory work to continue at Wharekirauponga before any consideration about mining would even begin.

Obstacles to the policy

Hague wouldn't speculate on what is holding up the discussion document, but Macassey-Pickard says she believes industry may be lobbying for stewardship land to be excluded from the policy and the Government could be considering that.

She says while she didn't believe the Green Party has enough influence in Government to push through the changes quickly, Labour's lack of action has been surprising.

"It was the Labour Party that have had the protection of the southern Coromandel in their manifesto for 10 years nearly."

Most mining activity occurs off conservation land, but as of November, there were 17481 hectares of the land covered by exploration and mining permits. There are 8.68 million hectares on public conservation land in New Zealand.

While Hague says Forest & Bird would "hold the Government" to their promise, Macassey-Pickard says she can only be hopeful the policy will be implemented.

"I am going to be hopeful, I have to remain hopeful, but the more time that goes past, the more disillusioned, I suppose, we are getting."