Abel Tasman oil, coal and gas proposal alarms

PRISTINE: Mutton Cove in Abel Tasman National Park.
PRISTINE: Mutton Cove in Abel Tasman National Park.

A Chinese-backed Australian mining company has revealed plans to explore for oil in the seabed off the Abel Tasman National Park coastline, across much of Golden Bay and the northwest corner of the South Island.

Golden Bay iwi are alarmed at the plans by Sydney-based Greywolf Goldmining NL. It is proposing drilling the seabed for oil and gas, as well as prospecting for coal in Golden Bay and developing Port Tarakohe.

The news comes on the heels of a controversial oil exploration project by South American company Petrobras off the North Island's East Coast, which has sparked high-profile protests by environmentalists and iwi.

Speaking from Sydney, Greywolf chief executive Edward Lancaster said the company hoped to start explorations and eventual mining operations once approval was granted from Crown Minerals - and if its Chinese partners considered it worthwhile.

"We know there's oil and gas out there [in Golden Bay] from previous drilling in the 60s and 70s. It was not considered economical [to drill] at the time but now the price of oil is going up it could well become economical," Lancaster said.

The company has also applied to Crown Minerals for two exploration permits to look for coal in the Puponga and Collingwood areas, where coal was mined in the 1890s. The Puponga Coal Mine operated from 1900 to the 1930s and again from 1953 until 1974.

Lancaster plans to visit the region within the next month to assess the potential for developing the area. Golden Bay was potentially a mineral-rich area and if coal and oil were found, Port Tarakohe could be developed to service those industries, he said.

Company representatives have already spoken to Tasman District Council chief executive officer Paul Wylie about their plans, including the possible development of Port Tarakohe.

"The job prospects for the region would be very good and I know he [Wylie] is anxious to develop the area," he said.

The company would also be considering the potential of Port Nelson for its operations, he said.

However, Lancaster said he was aware of a "strong anti-mining lobby in New Zealand" and if there was considerable objections, the company could be tempted to develop its interests in South America instead.

Due to the company's rapidly expanding interests in minerals other than gold and in preparation of it being listed on the Australian stock exchange, it has applied to the Australian Securities and Investment Commission to change its name to Greywolf Resources NL.

The Greywolf Resources website says the company is in a joint venture agreement with the giant Chinese energy company the Qinghua Group, which is assessing possible sites in the South Island for a "multibillion-dollar investment" in a port purchase and a steel mill construction, as well as a lignite conversion project.

Under the Crown Minerals Act, iwi have to be consulted before any prospecting, exploration or mining permits are granted but there is no requirement to consult the general public for prospecting or exploration permits.

Manawhenua Ki Mohua, comprising three Golden Bay iwi (Ngati Tama, Te Ati Awa and Ngati Rarua), received the company's petroleum application from the Crown Minerals department last week.

Their representative, John Ward-Holmes, said iwi were "totally opposed to any exploration or drilling of the seabed for oil on cultural and environmental grounds".

"Everyone is alarmed about it. We don't want this and we want to let people know what's in the pipeline."

He said iwi had not been informed about the company's applications to prospect for coal.

In November 2006, Perth-based Bonaparte Diamond Mines NL abandoned its plans to prospect for gold and other minerals in the Golden Bay seabed, following widespread opposition from environmental and fishing groups as well as local iwi.

Companies granted an exploration permit for petroleum are permitted to undertake well drilling once they have acquired seismic data aimed at defining the subsurface structure of an area. Their activities are strictly controlled under the Resource Management Act.

According to Crown Minerals, "the effects of these activities are generally minor in nature and are restricted to a limited time span over a limited area".

Crown Minerals spokeswoman Tracy Dillimore said applications could take up to six months to process, but she declined to comment further.

The Nelson Mail