Mining lignite a poor option

20:45, Feb 20 2013

Green MP Gareth Hughes has a message for the Southland District Council.

One of the biggest environmental challenges facing Southland and the country is the controversial lignite coal question. On the one hand big, bold claims are made by the likes of Solid Energy, and on the other environmentalists and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment have argued that the greenhouse gas emissions are so unacceptably high we shouldn't go down this path.

Next Monday is the deadline for submissions to the Southland District Council's District Plan Review and I am urging the council to do the right thing by the climate, the taxpayer and the local environment and make it a prohibited activity.

Essentially I am saying keep the coal in the hole, but by turning away from this dirty vision of development I believe Southland can prosper by embracing the smart, green economy.

Lignite is the lowest grade of coal and there are around 6 billion tonnes of recoverable lignite deposits in Southland and Otago, currently doing a pretty good job propping up some profitable farmland. Solid Energy has proposed converting it into briquettes for heat, diesel, fertiliser. Companies such as L&M and Solid Energy have held mining operations or are hoping to in the near future.

Not many locals may know but Solid Energy, the state-owned enterprise, is one of the largest land owners in Southland, having bought up 4000 hectares around coal development sites. However, with the low coal price and serious financial problems Solid Energy has recently announced it seeks to sell 920ha but retain mining rights for 30 years.


Allowing increased mining and exploitation of this low grade coal is, quite simply, disastrous for the climate. It has the least amount of energy, more water and less carbon than other kinds of coal, meaning more dangerous greenhouse gases.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, has warned the production of diesel from lignite on the scale contemplated would increase New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions significantly. In her report she says: "Just one of the two proposed lignite-to-diesel plants would increase the gap between the international climate change commitment we have made and where our greenhouse gas emissions are headed by 20 per cent. If both proposed lignite-to- diesel plants were to be built, the gap would increase by 50 per cent".

Furthermore, as Dr Wright has reported, the industry is unfairly subsidised by taxpayers under the current rules of the Emissions Trading Scheme.

I commend the Southland District Council's District Plan Review on its acknowledgement of climate change and its effects on various aspects of Southland's future, including infrastructure and natural hazards. Making lignite coalmining a prohibited activity is the best way to put mitigating climate change into practice.

Locally, ramping up of lignite coalmining and processing would radically change Southland. Lignite mining irreparably damages the landscape and destroys valuable farmland. It leads to pollution and can damage the health of those who live near the mining operations. Solid Energy's grand plans, if ever enacted, would be the largest industrial development in New Zealand in a beautiful, rural part of the country.

I think there are many reasons to keep lignite coal in the hole, but what are the job and development alternatives for Southland?

The draft plan acknowledges the wide array of benefits of renewable energy, saying: "Consideration should be given to the development, operation, maintenance and upgrading of new and existing renewable resources including wind, hydro electricity, solar, biomass, geothermal, tidal, wave and ocean current energy resources."

The recent Berl Economics/ WWF report gave the detailed analysis that showed Southland can prosper without exploiting dirty lignite coal. There are good new jobs available in other, more sustainable sectors such as enhanced forestry, engineering and education; jobs that won't destabilise our climate or require ongoing taxpayer subsidies for carbon emissions. They are sustainable, won't run out when the coal is gone and build on the valuable clean, green brand that benefits exporters. In 2011, more was invested internationally in renewable energy than fossil fuels. It's clear the smart money is investing in the clean energy, green-tech future; the region shouldn't tie itself into old, polluting technologies.

Taking into account the council's acknowledgment of climate change, its commitment to the development of renewable energy and the evidence which shows the alternative opportunities existing for Southland's economy, I'm submitting to the council to act responsibly for its residents, and for people outside its boundaries, and make new mining and exploration for lignite coal a prohibited activity.

The Southland Times