Mining exploration access applications up as Government delays ban on new mines on conservation land

Overdue progress on the Government's promise of no new mines on conservation land is expected within months, but activists say the environment remains vulnerable as mining companies continue with "business as usual".

Environmentalists, including those who applauded the promise from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during her Speech from the Throne in November 2017, are fed up the ban has yet to be implemented.

"It's not just disappointment, we are angry. We are really angry now," Augusta Macassey-Pickard from anti-mining group Coromandel Watchdog told Newshub.

In the meantime, applications to access Department of Conservation land for mining and prospecting are down, while applications for exploration are up.

A discussion document allowing consultation on the ban from relevant stakeholders - like mining companies, employees, activists, iwi and councils - was promised by Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage for release last September.

However, the document never appeared. Sage has since said it's being worked on and would become available when all pertinent information had been developed.

Newshub has now been told the document is planned for release "in the next four months, depending on Cabinet approval". If it is released in four months' time, it would be more than a year overdue.

Jacinda Ardern and Eugenie Sage.
Jacinda Ardern and Eugenie Sage. Photo credit: Getty / Newshub.

One concern from activists is that mining companies are taking advantage of the delay to speed up their activity and apply to begin new mining operations on DoC land before the ban is introduced.

They believe mining companies were spooked by the original promise and subsequent announcements that the discussion document was on its way.

Before new mining activity can begin on DoC land, an access arrangement is required, giving the mining company permission to access the land and the conditions the company must comply with.

Current access arrangement variations may also be sought. For example, this may be to extend the area mining is allowed in.

However, despite concern, information released to Newshub shows a slight decrease in the number of mining access arrangement applications received by DoC between Ardern's promise and April this year, compared to the period before.

In the 17 month period between November 8 2017 - the day of the Speech from the Throne - and April 8 2019, DoC received 30 applications for access to conservation land, or to vary current arrangements, for mining purposes.

That's compared to 47 received in the 17 month period between June 8 2016 and 8 November 2017.

The number of applications received for Minimum Impact Activities (Prospecting) was also down. Those for exploration purposes were up, however, from 14 to 22.

While the number of applications for mining purposes received since the Speech from the Throne are down, those for exploration are up.
While the number of applications for mining purposes received since the Speech from the Throne are down, those for exploration are up. Photo credit: Newshub.

Macassey-Pickard and Forest and Bird regional manager Debs Martin both say it's disappointing the number of applications received was still substantial.

Martin says it shows the mining industry is continuing "business as usual" despite the ban being foreshadowed.

"It is disappointing to see that the promise from the Speech from the Throne hasn't been enacted, and it's quite frustrating, as for us what [the data] looks like… is business as usual," Martin told Newshub.

"It is frustrating for us that it hasn't progressed with a discussion document that has been deferred and deferred."

Current state of play

Until a ban is implemented, decisions on whether to grant access to mining companies must be made under existing legislation, such as the Crown Minerals Act and Conservation Act.

The Crown Minerals Act says decisions must take into account several considerations such as what safeguards there are against "potential adverse effects" and the "direct net economic and other benefits of the proposed activity". Consultation with relevant parties will also take place to examine the impact of the activity.

Sage notes she and Energy and Resources Minister Megan Woods declined an application for the Te Kuha coal mine, which was received before her tenure began.

Chris Baker, the chief executive of mining lobby group Straterra, told Newshub companies were simply continuing as they legally could.

"The Government has made it clear on many occasions that it is business as usual until the law is changed.

"The fact that the number of applications is not up – in fact it is down – puts lie to the notion that the proposed ban has led mining companies to change their behavior and increase applications in anticipation of the ban."

Baker is concerned about the economic impact of the ban, including a loss of jobs - particularly on the West Coast - without any commensurate environmental benefits.

Most mining activity occurs off conservation land, but as of November, there were 17,481 hectares of the land covered by exploration and mining permits. There are 8.68 million hectares of public conservation land in New Zealand.

There is concern from those on the West Coast that their mining operations could be impacted.
There is concern from those on the West Coast that their mining operations could be impacted. Photo credit: Getty

2020 election issue?

Even if a public consultation document was presented within four months, a law may still be a while off.

Macassey-Pickard and Martin believe a moratorium on new mines on conservation land in the meantime is necessary. Sage, however, says that would require a law change and divert resources away from developing the discussion document.

Martin hopes the Prime Minister and her Government keep to their commitment and the ban doesn't become a 2020 election issue.

"The Prime Minister actually has to own this," she says.

Newshub asked Ardern if she stood by the announcement and whether the ban would be implemented within this term of Government, but she passed questions onto Minister Sage.

"The Government committed to 'no new mines on conservation land' in the Prime Minister's Speech from the Throne. As Conservation Minister, I'm working hard to deliver on this commitment," Sage says.