Voters could be forgiven for thinking the Government has a masochistic streak after it confirmed plans to investigate what treasures lie beneath large tracts of the West Coast.
National is still licking its wounds after the huge backlash against proposals to open high-value areas of the conservation estate to prospecting, and the mineral survey from Haast to Karamea has already drawn similar howls of protest.
However, there is a world of difference between what the Government was proposing two years ago and what it is proposing now, and this time it should stick to its guns.
In 2010, National was eyeing large areas of the conservation estate which were protected from mining under Schedule 4 of the Crown Minerals Act. The argument that significant parcels of land had been placed in the schedule without a proper analysis of whether their mineral wealth outweighed their environmental value was always doomed to fall on deaf ears. The inclusion of highly sensitive areas such as Coromandel Peninsula, Great Barrier Island and Paparoa National Park in the land proposed for prospecting made sure of that.
This time, the Government is embarking on nothing more than an aeromagnetic survey of the West Coast to determine what mineral deposits might be there and what they might be worth. The intention to carry out the survey, along with another one now completed in Northland, was made clear when National dropped its Schedule 4 plans, so nobody can accuse the Government of springing it on an unsuspecting public. Crucially, Schedule 4 land is also excluded from both surveys and, though the West Coast project includes parts of the Te Wahipounamu South West New Zealand world heritage site, Prime Minister John Key has promised none of it will be mined.
What we are left with, then, is a survey of land that has not been deemed of sufficient environmental value to be given Schedule 4 protection or world heritage status. That does not mean it has zero conservation value, but it does mean that testing it against the economic boost from extracting its riches is justified.
The issue of mining in New Zealand has always been fraught. For the past decade, Kiwis have looked jealously across the Tasman, where a mining boom has fuelled great growth and prosperity. Australia has, of course, been blessed with mineral deposits that are concentrated in vast outback areas. New Zealand has been cursed by having most of its coal, gold, silver and rare earth elements concealed beneath pristine native forests and spectacular mountain ranges. Kiwis have made it abundantly clear they want those areas off-limits to mining.
There are many other areas, however – including parts of the West Coast – that could hold deposits worth billions of dollars and which are of much less environmental importance. Technological advances also make it possible to extract minerals with limited environmental damage.
There is a debate to be had on whether the economic benefits from mining areas of low conservation value are worth the damage that might be involved, but we cannot have it till we know what is there.
- The Dominion Post