Editorial: Glimmer of good news for Coast

Over the last few years, the West Coast has been buffeted by seemingly endless bad economic news.

The Pike River disaster, as well as being a personal tragedy for so many people, also had dire financial consequences for many families and businesses. Shortly afterwards, the collapse of the Chinese market for coal following the global financial crisis brought Solid Energy, a major employer on the Coast, to its knees, with the loss of hundreds of jobs. Those losses are continuing, with nearly 200 more expected to be announced at the Stockton mine tomorrow.

In addition, and because of the same fall in the price being paid for coal, Bathurst Resources announced that its long-awaited new coalmine on the Denniston Plateau would get under way at a much lower level than originally planned. The gold miner OceanaGold has also scaled back its activities.

Which makes the news yesterday that two concerns are stepping up their search for oil on the Coast all the more encouraging. It has long been known that traces of oil exist in the region, but there has never been anything to justify a commercial operation.

It is still not clear yet that there is, but the Perth-based Mosman Oil and Gas, which owns an exploration permit in an area near Greymouth where oil seeps naturally from the ground, has recently raised more money from its shareholders and plans soon to drill six exploratory wells. That is double what it had previously indicated it would. Exploration is also being stepped up on another nearby area occupied on a permit held by the Gloriavale Christian Community, with a drilling rig expected to arrive within weeks.

Exploration is, of course, a long way from being production in commercial quantities. Mosman announced an oil discovery on the Coast on June 13 and its shares promptly tripled. And Energy and Resources Minister Simon Bridges said on Wednesday that commercial production was "reasonably likely" on the Mosman venture.

But like the overenthusiastic investors who bid up Mosman's shares, Bridges seems to have got ahead of himself. The shares have since lost most of their gains and, according to Mosman, it is still a long way from being able to say whether it will make a commercially viable discovery. Much more analysis has yet to be done. Nonetheless, these are still hopeful signs.

The field on the West Coast is a southern tip of the Taranaki field where New Zealand's only oil and gas finds have been made. If oil is found, it could help reverse the Coast's economic fortunes. The finds in Taranaki have been a boon to that region, which has the highest per capita income in the country.

It is vitally important, however, that if commercial discoveries are made, rigorous steps are taken to ensure that the environment is protected. The Coast has some of the most untouched and deeply loved landscape in the country. Reviving the Coast's economic fortunes is important but development cannot be unbridled. It must not be done at the expense of that unrivalled natural asset. On that, we cannot afford to compromise.

The Press