““The use of coal makes production of dairy, meat, and fresh fruit and vegetables possible, while staying competitive with imports domestically and competitors internationally.””
A need for “policy certainty” is the key factor identified by mining industry body Minerals West Coast (MWC).
MWC manager Patrick Phelps says the current regulatory uncertainty surrounding the industry is the greatest stumbling block facing the sector.
“There is plenty of demand for what is produced on the West Coast and we can produce it very efficiently,” says Patrick.
“The policy uncertainty is the biggest issue, and what the future environment for mining will be like.”
“In terms of investment in new mines, the industry needs clarity on what to expect.
“It costs an enormous amount of money – in some cases millions of dollars – to establish a mine, and a long time to get all the consents and other permissions in place.
“Miners need to know that at the end of that process they are actually going to be able to access the resource.”
MWC which represents around 100 different mining entities on the Coast – from bigger players such as Bathurst Resources to smaller one- or two-person operations – has been doing its best to get the message out there.
“In terms of resource the gold price has never been higher in NZ dollar terms, coal is slightly down now but the long-term demand is strong and we can operate extremely efficiently with sensitivity to the environment and environmental outcomes.”
Patrick, who has been in his current role for the last year and whose family has a gold mining background on the Coast, says the challenge for MWC and the industry players is to change the “public perception of mining”.
“We need to be talking not just to the politicians and policy makers but to the wider community in New Zealand. A lot of other industries also depend on the mining/quarrying sector for their businesses to survive.”
He says delays on a Government plan to ban mining on conservation land (which was announced in 2017) until after this year’s general election has given the sector more time to make a case for the industry retaining access to the conservation estate.
“There is already a lot of mining activity on conservation land on the Coast, and it is being done responsibly. And in terms of the environmental impact it’s a temporary impact.”
Patrick says the ongoing issue over access to the conservation estate was highlighted in the recent decision to decline consent for Stevenson Mining’s proposed coal mine at Mt Te Kuha near Westport,which included 12ha of conservation land in a proposed 100ha footprint.
“That project would have provided 60 jobs for 16 years, but it got rejected despite the company also proposing as well as full restoration to fund pest control over a much greater area of land that would actually have been a win-win for the environment.”
The ability to restore native habitat was emphasised in MWC’s recent submission on the Government’s proposed indigenous biodiversity policy.
“If you look at the world-class reclamation work OceanaGold has done at its Reefton site, it shows what can be done to restore the native habitat. Also nature itself does a pretty good job of reclaiming land when left to its own devices. ”
Patrick says the economic importance of the mining sector to the coast and the wider economy is significant and needs to be taken into account when framing policy.
“The industry probably employs around 500-600 people on the Coast and they are good paying long-term jobs and the money that brings into the community through suppliers, contractors, retailers is enormous. It’s a big part of the region’s life.”
And he says a lot of other industries – both on the Coast and further afield – depend on the mining/quarrying sector for their businesses to survive and benefit the wider economy.
He says a proposed ban on coal would have negative impacts for New Zealand food production and wellbeing, with a current lack of cost-effective alternatives.
“The use of coal makes production of dairy, meat, and fresh fruit and vegetables possible, while staying competitive with imports domestically and competitors internationally.
“New Zealand produces food which boasts a smaller carbon footprint than most other producers in the world, and coal is crucial to doing so.”
Another concern for MWC is the long-term loss of the specialist skills and a qualified workforce, which is again exacerbated by the current uncertainty in the industry.
“That is a big concern. The fact is when mine jobs go the people who have skills generally go too – they don’t stay around.
“They go to jobs overseas or go to work on projects in other parts of the country.
“Retaining those skills and developing them in younger people is vital to the industry’s future here – mining is an aging workforce and we need to have the next generation of workers coming through.’
“There is a lot of pride in the industry – people work hard and they are proud of what they do, and they should be. It is a hard industry to work in but it’s well rewarded.”
Patrick says the West Coast is still rich in resources and there is plenty of potential outside of the traditional coal and gold with highly valuable rare earth minerals.
“A low carbon economy needs wind turbines, solar panels, batteries, and electric cars. Many minerals will be needed.
“The rare earth minerals sector on the coast is largely untapped.
“A lot of work needs to be done to see what that resource is like and how economic it is to extract.
“Is there a substantial resource? Hard to say. Give geologists, investors, and miners the freedom to have a crack and we’ll see what happens”.
Overall, Patrick says he is optimistic about the mining/quarrying sector’s future on the coast, despite the many challenges that lie ahead.
“The industry will always be under great scrutiny and we accept that, but it’s come a long way. Mining’s history in the region is due to pioneering, adaptation, and innovation, and that will certainly be the case in the future.”