We must at least have the debate

21:06, Sep 20 2012

The most recent tranche of the Government's science funding round included three projects worth noting that slipped under the public radar.

They relate to extracting mineral, oil and gas resources - a move that lies at the heart of the Government's economic strategy but one it has had to tread warily on due to public backlash. After being forced to ditch earlier plans to open up the conservation estate to mining, the Government has pressed ahead with oil, gas and mining extraction elsewhere. That's despite warnings it could undermine the country's 100 per cent Pure Brand.

A Government-commissioned report earlier this year said while New Zealand was poised to ride the crest of a worldwide "green" wave, there needed to be a national "conversation" about mining and oil exploration. Yet another report - this time from the Pure Advantage business lobby group - pushed for New Zealand to lead the green growth race which it argued could do as much to fix our economic woes as following in Australia's path towards more carbon intensive industries.

Opinion polls have indicated there is public support, if slightly shaky, for more mining despite greenie opposition. But that support may be better entrenched if the Government could show how it planned to have the environmental impact of these current dirty industries more carefully considered rather than ride roughshod over those concerns.

A good example is two of the science projects that won funding in the latest Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's 2012 science investment round which focus on just that.

NIWA gained $1.58 million over four years for a research programme on effective environmental management of offshore mineral and hydrocarbon extraction.

Currently individual companies produce their own versions of environmental impact assessments. Instead NIWA plans to get all affected parties around the table - iwi, the mining industry, environmentalists, government agencies, regional councils and NGOs - to agree on a standardised assessment that has buy-in from everyone. "Otherwise we will be wasting taxpayers' money," said researcher Geoffroy Lamarche.

The research will also focus on modelling the area of water impacted by mining offshore, the chemical pollution from that water disturbance from the sea floor up, and how quickly the environment recovers.

The Taranaki region where oil and gas extraction is already prevalent will be a key focus, along with an area around the Kermadecs where environmentalists want a moratorium on mining while mining companies want to extract valuable sulphate deposits containing gold, copper, zinc and silver.

The on-land equivalent, a research programme led by Coal Association-owned science research agency, CRL Energy, gained $614,000 over two years. It was less money and less time than the researchers had hoped for.

CRL's James Pope says they will produce a Minerals Sector Environmental Framework, a best practice approach for dealing with environmental concerns that can be used through the consent process and beyond. The research team, which includes CRL Energy, Landcare Research, and Canterbury and Otago universities, has over the past 8 years already developed best practice guidelines for dealing with potentially polluting sediment draining out of South Island mine operations.

The new, broader research will also attempt to get buy-in from affected parties on the best practice framework. While all mining companies are already legally obliged to meet compliance and consent conditions, "how they do it and what they do is sub-optimal", Pope says.

Another aspect to the research is developing ways of predicting the environmental impact before exploration begins, let alone extraction. That way you could have an exploration, development and closure plan providing a clear picture of the economic viability of an identified deposit before work starts.

Research is one thing; enforcing these environmental safeguards is another.

The third project to win funding was $3.2 million over six years to GNS Science for a programme to develop the abundant natural gas in New Zealand's deep-water basins offshore.

It will assess the quality of potential reservoirs, provide a baseline for studying the environmental impact of extraction and compile parameters for production modelling. GNS Science said it would provide the basis for scientific exploration drilling and production tests that could lead to commercial production by 2025.

It could potentially unlock a new, carbon efficient energy for the country, it said. But first the environmental impacts will need to be debated - or at least we'd hope so.