Green Party wants Government to crack on with Jacinda Ardern-era promise to ban new mines on conservation land

The Greens say the Government is "running out of time" this term to fulfil its promise to ban new mines on conservation land. 

The party is launching a new petition on Monday to put the focus back on the issue, while also criticising the "enormous uncertainty for nature" the delay is causing.

It is spotlighting Australian billionaire Clive Palmer's Mineralogy International, which has 10 active mineral permits in New Zealand allowing for prospecting and exploration.

Many of the permits cover conservation land areas and all have been granted during the Labour Government's tenure.

A further four permits are currently under evaluation. None are mining permits.

One was just granted in March at Whirinaki, south-east of Rotorua, while another is a prospecting permit that began in July last year covering 283 square kilometres on the West Coast. It wraps around a large portion of Lake Brunner and covers part of the Hohonu Range conservation land.

In the headlines lately has been a prospecting permit for land northwest of Kerikeri in Northland that has the local Whangaroa hapū concerned. Part of the permit covers a small portion of Puketī Forest, which has some of the last unlogged ancient kauri trees.

While permits can be secured from New Zealand Petroleum and Minerals (NZP&M) for a number of years, holders still need to get land access, either from private landowners or, in the case of conservation land, from the Department of Conservation (DoC). Mineralogy has previously received DoC access.

Prospecting permits are described as "low-impact" by NZP&M (including geographic mapping and hand sampling) but can lead to "higher impact" exploratory work that includes drilling. 

It concerns Greens environment spokesperson Eugenie Sage that these activities are allowed on conservation land.

"If those go onto mining, that mining we know is invasive, it involves vegetation clearance and major damage to waterways," she said.

Sage said the current situation creates "enormous uncertainty for nature" and leaves it up to community organisations to defend lands' conservation values. 

"We need to change the law to provide security for nature," she said.

"We have a climate crisis and a biodiversity crisis. New Zealanders expect our conservation lands to be protected [and] these stunning landscapes and the plants and wildlife that inhabit them to be protected from mining."

Green MP Eugenie Sage.
Green MP Eugenie Sage. Photo credit: Getty Images.

She said Labour has failed to implement the promise to ban new mines on conservation land despite having a parliamentary majority. Former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern first made the promise in the 2017 Speech from the Throne.

Sage was the Conservation Minister between 2017 and 2020, but as Newshub has previously reported, the policy was bogged down then by a lack of consensus between Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens over its scope, including whether it would apply to stewardship land.

With NZ First out of Parliament, there were hopes Labour would quickly move ahead with the policy, but progress was delayed by a decision to focus on the reclassification of stewardship land first.

Conservation Minister Willow-Jean Prime told Newshub the Government remained committed to "ensuring that mining in Aotearoa only happens where and when appropriate, and according to robust regulatory standards".

"As such, significant and considered policy work is ongoing regarding the proposed policy of no new mines on conservation land… final decisions on any Bill have not yet been taken."

Until any law change is made, companies can continue to seek permits and access arrangements.

DoC director of regulatory services Steve Taylor told Newshub that when assessing access arrangement applications, it considers "the impacts and effects of the activity and assess any proposed mitigation measures". 

"These statutory processes are required by legislation and remain unchanged while policy work proceeds on potential amendment to regulatory or legislative settings.

"NZP&M permits does not give right of access to any land. The permit holder must seek access from the individual landowners to operate. Therefore, there can be conservation land within a permit granted by NZP&M, but the permit holder cannot access the conservation land without gaining the relevant access arrangements."

Prime also said she and her officials were "engaging with Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, recognising their Deed Settlement and the Ngai Tahu (Pounamu Vesting) Act 1997". 

It's been reported that progress on the policy has been slowed by the need to figure out how to address Ngāi Tahu's rights to pounamu, which may be impacted by a mining ban.

Sage has a Member's Bill which would prohibit new mines on conservation as well as coal mines. It's expected to come up for reading on the next Member's Day next week. However, Sage said there's been no public indication from Labour that it will support it.

"The bill and the explanatory material makes it very clear that there is no intention to impact on Ngāi Tahu's right to pounamu," she said.

"Alluvial gold mining on the West Coast in river valleys can unearth boulders, and that is the practical way that access to pounamu occurs. 

"If there needs to be further protections in the Bill, we'd hope that that can be done through the Select Committee process. But there's absolutely no intent to cut across Ngāi Tahu's statutory right to control, own and control access to pounamu."

The Greens are launching a petition on Monday calling on Prime to honour the Government's promise and back Sage's Bill. 

"We are running out of time in this term to change the law. My Bill is an opportunity to change the law to allow the public to have a say on what they think should happen on conservation land. The petition is to encourage the Government to support the Bill."

It's not the first time the party has tried to put pressure on the Government to act. In 2021, it launched an open letter calling for the Government to protect conservation land. It ended up receiving more than 16,000 signatures. But there's been no change.

Clive Palmer.
Clive Palmer. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Palmer's Mineralogy International is registered in New Zealand, with the Australian billionaire listed as a director.

The mining magnate is polarising in Australia, where he's frequently been involved in legal cases. He was once an MP and head of the United Australia Party. He campaigned with the slogan 'Make Australia Great'.

Palmer is reported to be the country's fifth richest person with more than AU$20 billion.

Mineralogy International was contacted for comment.