Exclusive: Minister Shane Jones says he has 'stood aside' from controversial Taranaki seabed mining project

A controversial plan to mine the seabed off South Taranaki drew school kids, iwi, environmentalists and Taranaki surfers out in protest in Hawera on Wednesday morning.

Minister of Oceans and Fisheries and of Resources, Shane Jones, is distancing himself from the project, saying he's signed a "formal letter" outlining his intention to stand aside from anything to do with Trans Tasman Resources Limited (TTRL) bid to extract millions of tonnes of sand from the seabed.

TTRL has been trying to secure consent to mine iron sand from the sea floor for a decade, but its attempts have continually been knocked back. 

Now, opponents to the seabed mining project believe the company appears buoyed by the new Government's more permissive approach to mining, and say the mining industry has lobbied NZ First to "develop opportunities in New Zealand's mineral resources".

Exclusive: Minister Shane Jones says he has 'stood aside' from controversial Taranaki seabed mining project
Photo credit: Newshub.

On Wednesday, in the TSB Hub in Hawera with a view to Mt Taranaki, a three-day hearing began with a new independent decision-making committee from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The committee will consider submissions from TTRL, followed by submissions from Kiwis Against Seabed Mining, Greenpeace, and fisheries companies later in the week.

TTRL's original application was to mine 50 million tonnes of sand from the seabed each year in the South Taranaki Bight.

The company‘s plan now includes a proposal to also extract valuable metal vanadium, which is used in batteries it says are needed to underpin a transition to renewable energy.

A line in NZ First's coalition agreement with National outlines an intention to "investigate the strategic opportunities in New Zealand's mineral resources, including vanadium, and develop a plan to develop these opportunities".

Chairman of TTRL Alan Eggers said the company has not sought the ear of NZ First on its mining plans.

"TTR, or any of its representatives, have at no time ever lobbied NZ First or any of its MPs regarding any mining projects or made any donations to the NZ First or any of its MPs."

In a video obtained by Newshub, NZ First's Shane Jones (who is both Minister of Oceans and Fisheries and Minister for Resources) is asked by Greenpeace about TTRL's bid to mine the seabed.

Jones replies, "I've stood aside from that particular project so there can be no allegation that I favoured mining or I favoured fisheries".

Jones also said he had signed a "formal letter" detailing his standing aside from the TTRL project.

Newshub has approached Jones' office for comment and requested a copy of the letter.

In the hearing on Wednesday, legal counsel for TTRL Morgan Slyfield submitted that information available in 2017 about marine mammal habitat and population numbers in the area was "incomplete and subject to various uncertainties".

It noted that NIWA's habitat modelling in relation to three threatened species (southern right whales, Hector's and Maui dolphins and orca) concluded the project area to be of "low suitability for all three species".

According to the Marine Mammal Protected Areas Taskforce, at least eight threatened marine mammal species have been documented in the South Taranaki Bight, including Maui dolphins, Hector's dolphins, Antarctic blue whale and the pygmy blue whale.

New Zealand pygmy blue whales are a genetically distinct and isolated population with year-round presence in the region, which is understood to be a critical foraging ground. 

Slyfield also submitted on one of the most contentious issues of the mining project - the discharge of sediment after the processing of extracted material.

They said there was a lack of information regarding the impact of the sediment plume and that grade control drilling would precede mining and would identify where ultra fine sediment is present.

"It is far from the case the operator goes into an area and finds whatever it finds," Slyfield said.

Seafood NZ's Jeremy Helson is due to submit to the committee on Friday in opposition to the project.

Helson says TTR's analysis of the impact of the proposal on commercial fishing are "simplistic and inadequate", adding that it constitutes a risk to fisheries and also to New Zealand's reputation as a world-class manager of fisheries and producer of seafood.

In 2022, a petition signed by 35,000 New Zealanders called for a complete ban on seabed mining.

In the same year, the then Labour government announced New Zealand would back a conditional moratorium on deep sea mining in international waters, until strong environmental rules can be agreed and backed up by robust science.

Watch the video below.