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Q+A: Interview with Chris Baker & Mark Bellingham

Published: 1:49PM Sunday May 30, 2010 Source: Q+A

Q+A's Paul Holmes interviews Straterra CEO Chris Baker & Forest & Bird's Mark Bellingham.

PAUL Earlier this month about 30,000 people more or less took to the streets in Auckland, took to Queen Street, to protest at the government's suggestion they might open schedule 4 conservation land, some of it in national parks, to mining, and this week around 35,000 submissions were received by Minister Gerry Brownlee, from people on organisations on what they thought of his mining plans. The government is currently deciding what the response will be, but of course there's already mining on conservation land, we have to bear that in mind all the time, and mining is a two billion dollar industry. Depending on whose figures you use, there may be a mining potential in excess of a hundred billion dollars in this country. This morning I'm speaking with Chris Baker, he's the Acting Chief Executive of Straterra, a mining lobby group and representing the big mining corporates, and Mark Bellingham, North Island Conservation Manager for Forest and Bird.

Chris Baker and Mark Bellingham, good morning to both of you, thank you very much for joining us. Christopher we've seen the public reaction, 30,000 people up Queen Street, that's ten times Nikki Kaye's Auckland Central majority. That tells you doesn't it, it's a dead duck politically?

No it doesn't say that at all. We've just heard John Whitehead talk about debt, heard Sue Bradford talk about more money required for retirees. Where is that money going to come from? Mining is one activity that can make a significant contribution to improving the wealth in New Zealand, and paying for some of those things. How else are we going to do that?

PAUL Well you tell him Mark, I mean that's a very good point, we have got frightening numbers we've gotta deal with, we've gotta keep people alive, keep them fed, keep them heated, and keep them looked after, and mining might be one way we can do it.

Well let's look at the reality of this. Mining in New Zealand is a really minor activity, and when we're talking about Schedule 4 we're talking about national parks, marine reserves, wilderness areas, and some significant ecological areas. Now these are the core of the tourism industry. Now tourism depending on dairy prices, is either No.2 or No.2 in the economy.

PAUL Yeah but you heard John Whitehead say that you can have mining and you can have tourism. I mean Wayne Brown up north points out that next to Kauri Cliffs, one of the most beautiful sites in the country is an open cast coal mine, and they live happily alongside each other.

CHRIS There's every evidence that you can have tourism and mining and conservation can work together, and it's a nonsense to say otherwise.

MARK Well no I disagree. It's a matter of place, and the analysis that's been done looking at how many tourists don't want to come here if we start mining our national parks is pretty clear. The amount of tourists who won't come here is probably equivalent to the amount of money that the mining industry generates. So it's either we don't gain anything or we may actually lose more by having it, because it's not necessary to have it in the best natural places in the country.

CHRIS I think we're misplacing the argument here. What the government's proposals provide is the opportunity to understand the potential better, and I don't think mining companies are looking to mine national parks, but maybe there's that opportunity, but we don't understand that potential. It's not a case of opening up this land for mining, nobody's gonna start mining tomorrow, they'll mine after they've spent say tens of millions of dollars to evaluate and come up with a project which will then go through the Environment Courts under the RMA, will be well assessed by the public and the mining companies.

PAUL Well that is right. See Mark it does seem to the observers a lot of automatic knee jerk reaction when it comes to mining Schedule 4 land. I mean if we were to go ahead and say well let's have a look at it, if we imposed serious rules and guarantees to preserve the integrity on top of the Schedule 4 land, on a case by case basis, at the expense of the mining companies for them to work out how to do it , why not give it a go?

MARK Look it's a waste of time for most areas to do this. But if we go down the RMA track and say okay you know the plans will provide, Auckland City probably will for Great Barrier, because the plan doesn't allow mining on Great Barrier, but you go to the West Coast, those plans that the local councils have and the regional councils have are so weak you can almost do anything, and I guess you know...

CHRIS That's nonsense. You cannot almost do anything. Look at the mining that occurs on the West Coast, it's run under the highest standards of environmental protection and management. Some of the companies there have a net positive contribution, so they aim to leave a better environment than before they started. Would you say that's a negative?

MARK Well look, you take the biggest mine on the West Coast, it's Solid Energy Stockton Mine, and it's like a moonscape.

CHRIS Corporate policy is to make a net contribution to the environment and that's what they're doing.

MARK But they're not doing that to the natural environment and you go to some of those rivers, you just wander through the coal slurry that's going down them. It's a disgrace, and I have and I've been to many of the other mines around the West Coast, and the rules that regional council have and the district councils there are slack, and we wouldn't accept them up here, and that's probably why the Coromandel and Great Barrier proposals are going to go.

CHRIS That's totally misplaced and a nonsense.

PAUL Chris can I talk to you about Schedule 4, because I did a little bit of reading and a bit of thinking about Schedule 4 yesterday. Schedule 4 land is only 13% of the country, actually 5% of that is water so it's 9% of the land, Schedule 4. When Schedule 4 was established in 1997, every MP in the House agreed to it, there was no dissent whatsoever, it was a full parliamentary consensus. It has generally around the country universal support. It is nice and simple. It says look that 9% of the land over there that's kinda what makes us Kiwis, that's what makes us proud, this is an amazing natural resource, let's not mess with it, it can't be touched. It's cheap to administer, Schedule 4, we know what's touchable we know what's not. You can still apply to mine on the other 87%. Now what's wrong with it, why rock the boat because you're gonna be setting yourself up for dissension and costs forever?

CHRIS Those assessments are that 40% of the mineral wealth is in that 13% of Schedule 4. mining companies will make their own assessment, as to the risk that they'll have to face public resistance in a particular area, and clearly there are areas of high conservation values that mining companies will not seek...

PAUL But what I'm saying to you - from the mining sector's point of view, Schedule 4 shuts down dissension. It was a kind of a truce.

CHRIS But it shuts down economic opportunity, I mean that's ridiculous. Time has moved on. We now know from that period you mention, we're 10 or 15 years on, we have a lot of debt, we're in a much more powerless economic situation as we just learnt, and we should be looking at the opportunities that we have, and mining's clearly one of those good opportunities to remedy that. If you want to get more hospitals, pay for more older people as our demographics change, where are you gonna do that from, mining's one of our opportunities.

MARK Well no I disagree, because the MED (Ministry of Economic Development) reports grossly overestimate the value of these minerals.

PAUL They don't know the value of them.

MARK Ah, but if you go to the Statistics Department's valuations they only value the mineral potential as one billion, not the 200 billion that MED do.

CHRIS Now hold on, if you then take that down to how much is in Schedule 4, you're talking about a 100 million dollars of value, 36 dollars for every voter in the country.

PAUL And when they're gone they're gone. Eco Tourism brings us 11 billion dollars a year that's right.

MARK Would you ask a statistician for a geological assessment?

CHRIS Well that is ridiculous. What you would do is do the work so that you understand the potential better than we do, and we don't understand it well enough.

PAUL A couple of questions people want to know at home from the mining industry. Do we have technology to mine it cleanly? In other words I spose the surgical equipment - can you do keyhole mining?

CHRIS Keyhole mining, that's not a mining term. You can do underground mining and Pike River is a good example where the footprint is some say 100 hectares or less, and I mean Pike River have been given an award from the Department of Conservation for the quality of their management of the environmental impact.

PAUL And it gets a lot of tourists.

CHRIS Waihi, the Visitors Centre at Waihi got 45,000 tourists last year.

MARK Yeah but I mean that's to do with the town. In the Coromandel with the highest unemployment and high social deprivation according to the exerts who've looked at it. But if you talk about underground mining you also have to look at the Tui Mine where&

CHRIS Well that's 40 years ago and under totally different circumstances and legislation, I think that it really clutching at straws.

PAUL It was 40 years ago, but have you answered my question can you mind cleanly? For example there was a gold mine I was reading about, they take out 4000 tons of rocks in order to get what 3 tons of gold, what happens to the rocks, can you mine cleanly?

CHRIS Well - yes you can, but you've have to talk about what you mean by cleanly. Those rocks are put - that you're referring to there - they're put on waste stockpiles, and rehabilitated and are now farmland. So that's clean.

MARK Well except for Golden Cross which is slipping down a hill.

CHRIS No it's not slipping down a hill, it was rehabilitated and it's stopped slipping down the hill.

MARK Until the company walk away and stop pumping the water out that's causing the slip. We're going to be left with a mess.

PAUL There might have been problems many many years ago, but we're much more environmentally attuned now aren't we?

MARK No, no, we have high technology - regional councils have such poor monitoring and poor performance standards that these problems are going to continue and the mining companies, foreign mining companies most of them eventually when the costs get too high will wind down their New Zealand operation and walk out, and you and me Paul, the taxpayer and all those people in the future we're talking about will bear the costs.

CHRIS Do you not know about bonds, and do you not know about corporate responsibility. Most of those mining companies, they're as good as their last project, and I don't see any evidence for what you just said at all.

PAUL Another question people at home want to know I'm sure. How much of the wealth from our mining of any Schedule 4 land, would make its way into our kitty?

CHRIS There's some information from Waihi for 2008 - 6% of the revenue that they created for that year went away as dividends, the rest was all spent in New Zealand, that's 95% of 188 million was their turnover for that year, was spent back in the country.

PAUL See if we can get some compromise between you. What can you live with? From a realistic point of view, given that even the Secretary of the Treasury thinks we can have both tourism and mining, what can you live with?

MARK Well we can live with mining and tourism, it's just not having them in the same place.

PAUL Can you live with a little bit of excavation of Schedule 4?

MARK No. We've had this debate. As you say there was full agreement of parliament. There's a substantial number of people, probably a majority who say don't go there, and it's something where we don't need to go and it's the only way we can really secure one of the most sustainable industries we've got, and that's actually tourism.

PAUL What can you live with? Status quo is probably what you're gonna have to be living with, anyway but yeah...

CHRIS I think we need to do better than that, status quo's not good enough. I mean look we refer to the debt, and those issues. Given the quality of environmental management that mining companies achieve with modern technology and policies, we can live with a lot more mining in New Zealand, not necessarily in the highest environmentally valuable places, but in a lot of places that are not mined now. And we need to get the information to allow that assessment and proposal to be brought forward. Right now we don't have that information to say there could be a mine there or there. We need to allow the companies to do the prospecting and then we can progress from there.

PAUL There I have to leave it. Mark Bellingham thank you very much for coming on, Chris Baker thank you for coming on.

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