Politics

Do drilling and digging have a future, or are NZ’s mining days over forever?

As the government announces an end to new extraction on conversation land, Sefton Darby – whose position on the debate has shifted over the years – says the crucial issue is how we decide at all

A lazy no. Then a full-hearted they’re all corrupt, no. Then yes. Then maybe. Then it depends. Those are, in order, the positions that I’ve taken over the past 20 years on whether we should be should be mining and drilling for oil. I realise this might seem a smidge inconsistent, particularly as I’ve worked for NGOs, governments, and mining companies, all of whom have had their own noisy opinions on the matter.

So should we extract? Should we be drilling and digging or should the closed-for-business signs go up across the country?

Last week’s announcement that there will be no new mining on conservation land seems like the inevitable swing of the pendulum reaction to the previous government’s blatant cheerleading for the oil and mining sector. But it’s not actually a decision that takes us anywhere in the long-term; pendulums swing back.

A 2010 protest on Queen Street, Auckland. Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images

And as the oil and mining industry folks love to endlessly remind us, these resources are ubiquitous in our lives; “if it’s not grown then it’s mined”, and anyone against them is just a big car driving jet-holiday taking hypocrite. Which we absolutely are, though I can officially confirm after extensive field testing that I’ve never once persuaded a single person of anything by calling them a hypocrite. When examined, this is not a persuasive argument, and sometimes it seems more a way of industry justifying itself while putting their fingers in their ears when anyone questions their impacts.

But let’s be clear here – as consumers, New Zealanders are fairly dirty. Our per capita greenhouse gas emissions are high; we have a dairy industry that doesn’t just have a rivers problem but a coal-fired factories problem; the fuel efficiency of our vehicle fleet has barely budged in a decade; and a mere one in 400 of us has put Kiwisaver funds into a socially responsible option that divests from fossil fuels. Join all of that behaviour up with our pride in being “clean and green” and it makes for some cognitive dissonance of a pretty high order.

While there’s definitely change on the way in terms of how we fuel our cars, global per capita trends of minerals consumption involve a lot of graphs with lines sloping steeply upwards. We all want much more stuff, but few of us want to think too hard about where it’s from. As the photographer Edward Burtynsky puts it, “We build cities and leave holes in the ground where they came from … [quarries are] inverted skyscrapers.”

So what can a new government do to help people to transition to a less resource intensive, less carbon intensive life? Quite a lot actually – proper carbon pricing for all industries, fuel efficiency standards, car share schemes, and research and investment into materials recycling to name a few. But if they can’t answer that question and still want to shut down mines, then the only thing that will be achieved is shifting production to some other country, probably one with lower environmental protections and weaker governance.

That’s not to say that the companies get a pass. New Zealand is what’s known as a “frontier” region by the global industry, and like most frontiers we have suffered from an over-population of cowboys. We’ve seen this play out with the haste and greed of the Schedule 4 proposals backed by the previous government and most of industry alike; the Rena disaster; and at Pike River.

The double-edged sword of oil and minerals is this – they’re not going anywhere, but nor do we get a second go at getting it right once they’re gone. That means that we can afford to be choosy about projects and companies alike – the oil and minerals aren’t walking off anywhere; opportunities can be deferred until they can be done right without being lost.

The aforementioned cowboys will tell you otherwise, that it’s all doom and gloom for everyone if frontier prospectors are run out of town. It’s an entirely self-serving spiel of course, and the new government would probably be doing everyone a favour by clearing house a bit and by demanding a higher quality of investor.

One of the biggest challenges for government in relation to companies, however, isn’t about making declarations on who is doing the extraction, or even the easy vote-winner of where it shouldn’t take place. No – the most difficult and most important challenge is how we make these kinds of contentious decisions.

The problem with the how is that it concerns our processes of governance, full of yawn-inducing things like transparency of process; the need to put clear air between politicians and regulators; the need for a strong Official Information Act; controls on lobbying; and robust parliamentary watchdogs like the Auditor General, the Ombudsman and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. See? Boring.

So let’s put the problem another way. When politicians get all shy about disclosing things under the Official Information Act, what they are actually saying to taxpayers and citizens is this: “we’re not governing for you people; we’re governing for us; if something makes us feel just a little bit uncomfortable or surprised, then no need for you to worry your pretty heads about it.” It’s an attitude that has been utterly corrosive of good decision-making.

These governance problems aren’t just parliamentary ones. In the oil and mining space, for example, the 2013 changes to the Crown Minerals Acts makes the public servants independently regulating the industry also responsible for promoting it.

We have a political system in which all roads (and all taxes and oil and mineral royalties) lead back to Wellington. Iwi and hapū, local communities, and local government are frequently left dealing with the consequences of the industry but are often unable to influence or benefit from it. The word “decentralisation” is a dirty one in Wellington, which is probably a clear indication that it’s worth at least examining.

We have Crown Research Institutes that have to provide both public science of the kind that will help us with the evidence base for making difficult decisions, while at the same time accepting commercial contracts from companies working up extractive projects. Whether it be in MBIE or a research institute, even the best, most fastidious regulators and researchers – and the overwhelming majority of them are – can’t escape from the whiff, from the perception, that those roles are contradictory ones.

I can’t put it better than Ben Thomas, of the Spinoff’s Gone By Lunchtime podcast, who recently wished aloud for a government that would go about “restoring a bit of independence to the public service and getting them away from just being henchmen to politicians”.

That can’t happen soon enough. Indeed, it’s fundamental for achieving long-term positive change rather than successive governments just undoing what the last lot did.


Sefton Darby is a Sydney-based consultant working on public policy, good governance, and community engagement issues. He has previously worked for governments and NGOs on overseas development projects, and has been closely involved in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. He has also previously worked in the mining industry at Waihi, and as the National Manager of Minerals for the government. His new book The Ground Between – Navigating the Oil and Mining Debate in New Zealand is published by Bridget Williams Books.

The views in this article and the book are entirely the author’s and do not reflect the views of any clients or employers past or present

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