New Opencast Mine Permitted

By Bryan Walker 27/08/2011

News today that resource consent has been granted to Perth-based company Bathurst Resources for opencast coal mining on 200 hectares in the Mt Rochfort Conservation Area on Denniston Plateau, northeast of Westport. It will become New Zealand’s second largest opencast coal mine after Solid Energy’s nearby Stockton mine.

The commissioners said that the consent was granted ’not without some considerable reservations and anguish’ and that they ’do not wish to provide any indication that future consents will be granted to undertake further mining in this area.’ But the economic benefits easily carried the day:

“The most and almost overwhelming factor that we had to consider is the enormous financial benefit that the mine will bring to the Buller district and the West Coast region.”

Forest and Bird, for whom the ecology of the plateau is of high significance, opposed the granting of consent, and just yesterday I read the following in their latest magazine:

’With climate change the biggest threat facing biodiversity across the planet, the development of a coal mine on the Denniston Plateau is an affront to international evidence urging coal mines to be phased out, and no new ones to open. In May, climate scientist Dr James Hansen toured New Zealand warning of the consequences of global warming. His message was clear — no new coal mines. The burning of the 73 million tons of coal (the total of the present consent for 6 million tons and the further 67 million identified for further consents) would amount to about 180 million tons of carbon dioxide discharged into the atmosphere.’

The article notes that the Department of Conservation was not present at the hearing, though it made submissions, and comments:

’The department’s protective functions are seriously compromised under current legislation and government strategies promoting the mining of fossil fuels.’

New Zealand washes its hands of responsibility for emissions from coal exported to other countries, and thereby remains untroubled by the consequences of increased emissions from the coal we mine. A previous Minister of Energy explained to me patiently in a letter that the emissions are a matter for the country which burns the coal, not for us who supply it. We are not alone in this, of course. Our neighbour across the Tasman is the world’s largest coal exporter. But one wonders at what point coal exporting will be deemed incompatible with a government’s professed concern about global warming. There’s no sign that the major political parties in New Zealand even think about the possibility, though the Greens certainly do.

For the West Coast communities which have grown up depending on mining as a significant source of employment and income the opening of new mines is something to be welcomed, and this has obviously been the chief consideration guiding the resource consent. But for every community which appears to benefit from the mining of coal there will be other communities around the world which suffer the consequences of global warming grievously, and ultimately those consequences will come home in some form to us all. We can feel for the West Coast, but not to the point of agreeing that new coal mines should be permitted.

I wrote along similar lines at greater length earlier this month, but make no apology for sounding the theme again. We have come to the point where coal mining should be winding down, not taking on a new lease of life. That’s the plain fact of the matter, and there are no arguments for ignoring it.