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Seabed mining for critical minerals isn't a "clean" energy revolution

“If you have to destroy the South Taranaki Bight, home to pygmy blue whales and kororā, to get a mineral like vanadium for ‘critical minerals’  then you’re doing it wrong. Trashing the environment to tackle the climate crisis is not a solution.”


By Cindy Baxter, KASM Chair In November 2023, soon after the election, mining lobby group Straterra sent its Briefing to Incoming Ministers (BIM) to a variety of ministers in the new coalition government.


“It has become blindingly obvious that there will be no high-tech, low emissions energy transition without mined minerals. The catch is, the demand for these minerals vastly outstrips supply so the world needs more mines, and fast,” read the mining lobbyist briefing


Straterra went on to outline the minerals it argued were “required to fuel a low carbon future and to advance technology,” minerals like vanadium, lithium, rare earth elements, copper, nickel-cobalt, tungsten, silica, ilmenite, garnet, antimony, and phosphate.


Straterra represents all mining interests in Aotearoa: it has long been the political arm of would-be seabed miner Trans Tasman Resources. Gold miner Oceana Gold’s Alison Paul chairs its board; most of the other board members are from coal mining companies and exporters, including Richard Tacon of Bathurst Resources, two people from Stevenson’s (coal) mining, and Phil McKinnel from coal mining company Birchfield Resources.  


Shane Jones launching his minerals strategy on the West Coast

According to Resource Minister Shane Jones’ diary he met with Straterra on 5 December, then again for two hours on 23 January, followed by a two-hour get-together with “industry stakeholders”.  Some of those stakeholders also got to dine with him on the West Coast during a subsequent visit in February.  


Many of those stakeholders stand to gain from the fast-track approvals bill, listed by the government. Trans Tasman Resources has long been promoting its vanadium “resource” in the South Taranaki Bight; Chatham Rock Phosphate has been pushing its “sustainable” phosphate “resource” on the Chatham Rise. Stevenson’s is looking to get its Te Kuha coal mine across the line on the West Coast and Oceana Gold wants to mine the Coromandel for gold. 


On 23 May 2024, Jones launched the government’s new mining strategy, much of the rhetoric echoing the same spin promoted by Straterra. 


Jones speech launching the strategy repeated the Straterra mantra about us having better standards (debatable, given the fast-track bill):  “New Zealand has a wealth of mineral resources and I would rather we extract from our own backyard than be left with no choice but to import from places with lower environmental and employment standards.”


Last week Chatham Rock Phosphate jumped to tell shareholders that Canada has now added phosphate as a critical mineral and that it was “strategically positioned” to meet the demand, listing the “low cadmium” Chatham Rise phosphate in its list of sources it had access to.


Slow growing gorgonian coral found in the deep seabed of the Chatham Rise. (Photo: Peter Marriott, NIWA)

Never mind that it failed in its application for a marine discharge consent in 2014, something it has never revealed to potential shareholders as it raised money from unsuspecting Canadian shareholders based on the “resource” it owns on the Chatham Rise (it’s amazing how much cash you can make off the back of a mining licence).  Never mind that the Chatham Rise phosphate is radioactive: it contains polonium, not something NZ farmers - nor indeed our waterways - have ever had to deal with.


“Critical minerals” is the new mantra for the government’s push to return to mining, for its fast-track approvals bill that could give the green light to projects rejected by consent processes that examined their potential environmental impact and found them wanting.


"Critical minerals" is the mining industry’s last hurrah: they’ve failed at climate change denial, they’re failing to get the consents for the trashing of the conservation estate and ocean environment they’d cause to get at these minerals;  they’re losing their social licence, and have now jumped on this new argument as a last ditch effort to make a quick buck, but with a new spin. 


The media has  bought into Straterra - and now the government's - spin, with vigour: editorials, articles, podcasts, pro-mining boffins trotted out on the radio… 


But seriously, if you have to destroy the South Taranaki Bight, home to pygmy blue whales and kororā (little blue penguins), to get to a mineral like vanadium for ‘critical minerals’  then you’re doing it wrong. Trashing the environment to tackle the climate crisis is not a solution. 


"Pygmy" blue whales in the South Taranaki Bight. They grow up to 25m long. Photo: Oregon State University

Recognising this, global research and development, especially into batteries, is already looking at cleaner alternatives to lithium, for example. Sodium-Ion batteries for EVs are already on the market in China.  For the bigger batteries to back up, say, a wind farm, that vanadium could be used in, researchers in Finland have developed a large thermal battery that stores heat in sand


It’s also worth taking a look at what we as a country would get from this all-out mining assault in the draft strategy. The New Zealand royalty regime is tiny. As Jones has said, it brought in $21 million to the country last year. This could, he argues, rise to $40million. Aside from oil and gas, minerals companies pay around 2.5% on the minerals they mine, and they pay nothing if they’re not making a profit (in New Zealand, that is). 


Compare this with the income we get from tourism. MBIE and DOC have been recently seeking feedback on four options for the international visitor levy per eligible person which currently amounts to about $60-80 million per year. Options include increasing the $35 tourist charge to up to $100 which would generate about $230m per year. 


How would tourists to Taranaki view the ocean, looking out over miles and miles of discoloured water from the seabed miners’ sediment plume?How would they feel knowing one of the world’s most endangered frogs had been wiped out by gold mining?  Or when they stand in downtown Westport and instead of seeing beautiful bushclad hills they’re exposed to the ugly sight of an open cast coal mine at Te Kuha?  


It’s also worth looking at the companies wanting to mine. Who are they? 


TTR is wholly Australian-owned.  CRP is listed on a Canadian stock exchange. Oceana Gold is Canadian. Miner Clive Palmer is Australian - now tax-resident in Singapore.  Bathurst Resources is Australian (although it’s teamed up with Shane Jones’ fishy friends Talley’s on the West Coast to buy the Solid Energy coal assets).  The profits from the selling and processing of their minerals would not be paid out here in Aotearoa, they’d be paid to the shareholders in those other countries. 


Nobody is proposing to process these minerals here in Aotearoa. The most we'll do is the first round of “cleaning” the mineral here, leaving us with its associated pollution,  then ship it off overseas for processing and import the minerals - or the products they’re used in - back into the country.   The government is now consulting on its minerals strategy to 2040. Read it here and make a submission: Deadline 31 July 2024.


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