Coal mining is an increasingly hot issue. At the end of January I joined a dozen or so other Nelsonians who made the trip down to Mataura, near Gore, for the Keep the Coal in the Hole Festival. Organised by Coal Action Network Aotearoa, the festival was held on Mike Dunbar's land, a farmer who is refusing to sell his land to Solid Energy for lignite mining.
The festival drew attention to the proposed mining and was attended by more than 300 people from across the political spectrum, plus scientists, health professionals, MPs and concerned locals.
Camping out at Mr Dunbar's farm, with the prospect of the surrounding lands being turned into an opencast coal mine, was a very sobering experience.
This was reinforced by guest speaker Sid Plant's account of how his 1200 hectare farm in Queensland, Australia, has been affected by the bordering New Hope coal mine. Sid spoke about the loss of productive land, the increase in noise and air pollution and the virtual destruction of his community.
He warned the Southland community that once the land is gone, you can't get it back.
Driven by state-owned energy company Solid Energy and mining company L&M Group, the plan is to develop lignite resources for export briquettes (construction of the pilot plant is underway), diesel and urea fertiliser.
To put the issue into perspective, there are more than six billion tonnes of economically recoverable lignite in Southland and Otago. Solid Energy owns land containing 1.5 billion tonnes – New Zealand's coal production was 4.5 million tonnes in 2009.
For this reason in late 2010 Jan Wright, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, came out strongly opposed to the lignite proposals because of the huge increases in greenhouse gas emissions that would result.
Coal mining is an issue closer to home too. Nelson and Tasman residents may be surprised to know that right on their back doorstep, in the Kahurangi National Park, is the Denniston Plateau, which is home to rare species such as the West Coast green gecko and the great spotted kiwi.
Unfortunately the Denniston Plateau is also a proposed opencast coal mine.
The landscapes found on the Denniston Plateau were formed 40-60 million years ago. The plateau is part of a sandstone and coal-measures landscape found nowhere else in the world, and is the only part protected as conservation land. Complex ecosystems have formed and many endangered species have found a haven among the plateau's unusual sandstone pavements, wetlands, gully forests and rare tussock-lands.
If the proposal to create an opencast coal mine goes ahead it will create a 200ha coal pit and severely threaten the survival of the fragile ecosystem and the animals that live there.
It would also give it a similar fate to its neighbour – the Stockton Plateau, which has been half destroyed by opencast mining in the past few decades.
Do Southland and Denniston really represent the direction we want New Zealand to go in? Is turning large tracts of land into opencast lignite mines the legacy we want to leave our children?
With oil reserves dwindling we will be faced with real challenges. But a country like ours which is blessed with renewable energy resources is well-placed to be a world leader in clean energy technology. Nelson alone, with its abundant timber resources, could produce enough cellulose ethanol to almost wipe out the need for New Zealand's oil imports.
We have choices. The question is whether we'll be insightful enough to make the right choices. Going Green is a fortnightly column by members of the Nelson Environment Centre. Aaryn Barlow is the centre's Homestar practitioner and assessor, and was the Green Party candidate in the 2011 general election.
- © Fairfax NZ News