An anti-coal activist has expressed dismay over the Government's decision to grant a coal mining exploration permit on Crown land in Waikato.
Information obtained by Newshub shows since the September 2017 election, five mining or exploration permits have been granted on Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) land, including one for coal exploration.
The coal exploration permit was granted to BT Mining Ltd in September 2018. Its parent company is Wellington-based Bathurst Resources, a major player in the New Zealand coal mining industry.
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It was the only permit granted for coal mining exploration since the Government was elected in 2017, while the others were for mining of other minerals such as gold and silver.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in late 2017 her Government would consider new permits for coal mining on a case-by-case basis.
But with the Government's Zero Carbon Bill announced last month - which sets a target of zero net emissions by 2050 - the coal mining exploration permit is being criticised as a contradiction.
'Time we put an end to this'
Cindy Baxter of Coal Action Network Aotearoa said it was "extraordinary" that with the Zero Carbon Bill in Parliament, "miners are continuing to just dig up coal and the likes of Fonterra will use it to dry milk".
Fonterra is among Bathurst Resources' clients. The dairy giant has made efforts to go carbon neutral by transitioning from coal by going electric at its Stirling site in Otago. It also surrendered a mining permit in the Waikato.
But pointing to BT Mining's exploration permit, Baxter said: "[The coal] will all end up in the sky and cause more of the global warming that the Government says it wants to stop. It's time we put an end to this."
When Newshub asked the Prime Minister if it's appropriate coal mining exploration permits are still being granted, she said: "We are in the middle of transitioning our economy.
"That's why, of course, we've already made a decision as a Government not to continue to offer offshore exploration permits."
"What we've seen, though, in the last year, is how fragile sometimes our natural gas reserves can be, so we have seen a little extra reliance on coal that tells us why we generally need to transition our electricity generation as much as possible."
Energy Minister Megan Woods said the spike in coal reliance last year came down to an outage at the Pohokura gas field near New Plymouth and low lake levels.
Woods said her message to critics was that the Government is "doing more than most in the world to call time on the use of fossil fuels... we really are showing leadership in this area".
She told Newshub: "When it comes to coal it's really in terms of whether or not we take the same approach that we did with oil and gas when last year we announced the end of new offshore oil and gas permits.
"When it came to oil and gas, I didn't see it as a transition - I just saw it as a continuation of the status quo and the Government had to call time, and that's exactly what we did in relation to oil and gas."
'Failing to deliver'
Coal is the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, according to Coal Action Network. Its website describes: "Of the fossil fuels left in the ground and available to burn, 79 percent of the global warming potential is from coal."
National leader Simon Bridges said the coal exploration permit shows the Government's offshore oil and gas exploration ban "has driven the incentive to bring in more coal".
He told Newshub it's another example of the Government "failing to deliver".
"That's not right. Under us, you'd see less coal used, because we'd be open to sensible oil and gas development."
Richard Tacon, director of BT Mining, said the permit - for the Rotowaro area in Waikato - gives the company the ability to explore for coal, and time to evaluate the coal for "feasibility of mining".
He said while the permit gives the holder the opportunity to see whether the area is suitable for mining, it doesn't give rights of access to carryout mining activities - that would require an additional permit.
Mining permits and exploration permits are actually granted by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). LINZ will then consider an application for an Access Agreement once an application has the permit.
Tacron told Newshub all of the mining company's operations "have extensive environmental controls" in place to "ensure that our activities don't harm the environment".
Why the permit was granted
When asked why the coal exploration permit was granted, LINZ Minister Eugenie Sage told Newshub: "LINZ made the decision to grant the access agreement in line with the laws as they stand."
She said coal mining has occurred in the Rotowaro area "for some years".
LINZ does take into account the environmental impacts of mining on Crown land, Sage added, "but it does not have to apply the legal tests and protections that apply to conservation land".
Sage was referring to her decision not to grant mining company OceanaGold permission to purchase 178 hectares of land near Waihi for a new tailings reservoir - a rock impoundment used to store byproducts of mining operations.
Simon Bridges said the situation in Waihi was a "travesty".
He told Newshub: "There are 300 jobs in jeopardy because Eugenie Sage, for ideological reasons, won't sign off a permit."
The information released to Newshub shows OceanaGold was granted a permit for exploration and mining for gold and silver in August 2017, in Waikato north of Tauranga.
Bridges said he agrees with mining on a case-by-case basis because, "We need a New Zealand with a strong economy with jobs, with people earning more."