Phil McCabe: Seabed mining rebuffs send right message

People at Piha beach raise awareness of the threat of seabed mining. Photo / Michael Craig

People at Piha beach raise awareness of the threat of seabed mining. Photo / Michael Craig

Phil McCabe* | The New Zealand Herald

Among the fallout from the Environmental Protection Agency denial of a second application to mine the seabed for minerals in New Zealand waters, there have been cries from the mining industry and friends that our new legislation needs softening.

Really? Let’s go back a few steps.

The exploitation of mineral resources in our exclusive economic zone (EEZ) has been a major part of this Government’s economic growth plan. It established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as an independent body to create public confidence in the decision-making process for activities such as mining, and its EEZ legislation was, in part, written to enable the industry to establish itself here.

The Government was aware of potential environmental effects. Then-Environment Minister Amy Adams described the new laws as sending “a clear message to companies operating in the EEZ that New Zealanders value their oceans”.

When Trans Tasman Resources failed the EPA test in its bid to mine the ironsands in the South Taranaki Bight, both then-Conservation Minister Nick Smith and Energy and Resources Minister Simon Bridges defended their “robust” framework.

Mr Bridges said our “world best practice” legislation had led to a decision that “shows that we have a strong process with very high environmental hurdles that have to be met”. But he also warned: “Not everyone can jump that high.” This was the case with both seabed mining applications.

Globally, the industry called “seabed mining” is still very much in development, an untested technology with no comparable projects anywhere else on Earth. The New Zealand Government opened our waters to this novel industry and the high levels of uncertainty have shone through with these negative decisions, at the expense of investors.

About $100 million was spent over seven years on the two failed proposals, during which time they reeled in willing investors. But did the companies over-promise their ability to get marine licences for this untested industry?

In the light of two failed applications under a regulatory framework designed to enable them, there are only two possible conclusions that can be drawn.

First, the companies could not prove their proposals were environmentally and economically acceptable.

Second, the Government underestimated the complexities involved in introducing into the marine environment what has been a wholly terrestrial commercial activity. It might be that large-scale mining in the marine environment is inappropriate for New Zealand altogether.

The EPA’s Chatham Rise decision states that the environmental effects on a rare and vulnerable ecosystem were a “major concern” and that economic benefits to New Zealand were “modest at best”.

In both applications, the EPA found the economic benefits wanting. The royalties payable would have been minimal for a resource 100 per cent owned by New Zealand.

What of the future investor in all of this and of the cries of New Zealand being “closed for business”? Such scaremongering by industry groups is disingenuous and self-serving.

Yes, these two decisions send a signal – but not that New Zealand is “closed for business”. That’s insulting to the many sustainable businesses operating successfully in New Zealand.

They send the right signal: that New Zealand will not accept high-risk developments that damage the environment and ecosystems while providing relatively little economic benefit.

New Zealand is, and should be, open to smart, sustainable, value-adding investments that provide jobs and livelihoods well into the future without compromising our values, environment, and our way of life.

The regulators and the legislation have done their job and delivered the best long-term outcome for New Zealand in fending off two unacceptably inappropriate and risky ventures.

Given Mr Smith has confirmed he is considering amending the legislation, we trust he will consult with all stakeholders across the community, from iwi to fishing interests and coastal communities.

• Phil McCabe is the chairman of Kiwis Against Seabed Mining

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Filed under Environmental impact, Financial returns, Human rights, New Zealand, Pacific region

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