Shaping Southland's Future Without Lignite

The last 12 months has seen a lot of water flow under the bridge and not just because we have had more than our fair share of rain over the last few weeks. A year ago we held the first Leave the Coal in the Hole Summer Festival and the situation for both the Coal Action Network Aotearoa and Solid Energy couldn't be more different. Last year Solid Energy were poised to rip up the Mataura Valley and turn the area into one of the biggest industrial sites in New Zealand while the Coal Action Network was largely unknown and our camp was under heavy police and security surveillance.

This year Solid Energy's ledgers are full of red ink and their first lignite venture (the briquetting plant) has gone through several managers and its completion is months behind schedule. Even the mining lobby organisation Straterra has suggested that the use of lignite is looking "less alluring".

The Coal Action Network and the local group Coal Action Murihiku (CAM) have established themselves in the Southland community as credible and responsible. Despite the dirty tactics of Solid Energy in having our donated marquees removed last year and their attempt to label us as dangerous protestors, our efforts to get along side the local community and provide alternative information has been successful. Solid Energy may have lots of money to throw around in sponsorship but most of our CAM members have established reputations as community minded people who genuinely care about the future of the region. It is difficult to demonise a QSM recipient, a retired forest manager and an award winning 91 year old conservationist who are active CAM members.

The camp this year was situated in the beautiful Dolamore Park and I parked my caravan beside a babbling creek and enjoyed the constant sound of water and bellbirds. In this environment, surrounded by flowering rata and birdsong, it's hard to comprehend that anyone would put greater value on the lignite beneath us.

 The registration tent

The few remaining for the pack up on the last day.

We had eclectic group for the presentations and discussions at the camp and it was great to share the combined experiences and knowledge from around the country and even some international perspectives from a German and Frenchman who joined us. The Green Party was represented by MP Gareth Hughes.

Green MP Gareth Hughes

For those who had arrived on the Friday we took them for a tour of the New Vale Mine (that supplies the fuel for Fonterra's Edendale Dairy Factory) and the briquetting plant. We discovered that soon after leaving the camp that we were quickly joined by a distant police escort and ProVision Security. Solid Energy employ Thompson and Clark Investigations Ltd (whose clandestine activities were recently exposed) to advise on security and Director Gavin Clark also manages ProVision Security. It is ironic that Solid Energy promotes the development of the lignite as something that will bring employment opportunities for local people and yet most jobs so far have gone to those outside the region and even the security guards were flown in from the North Island. We were told that the guards were employed to "protect us from harming ourselves". I guess it was flattering that Solid Energy spent so much money on our safety when the industry doesn't have a great record for looking after their employees.

We had kept the local police fully informed about our programme and organisation and we have a good relationship. They were more concerned about us being troubled by the odd carload of young people who tour the countryside in any weekend looking for excitement.

CANA spokesperson Rosemary Penwarden attempted to present a symbolic gift to Solid Energy management at the briquetting plant, but they refused to meet us and their local communications person appeared briefly and then hid. Rosemary had to leave the food basket of local produce and packet of mothballs at the gate under the wary eyes of the ProVision guards, who seemed to regard the gesture with unnecessary caution. The food basket was a tongue in cheek reference to the financial difficulties that Solid Energy was experiencing and symbolic of the food producing potential of the valley. The mothballs represented our view that the plant should be mothballed until we have the technology to manage the carbon safely.

  The presentation

The public day on Sunday, Shaping Our Future, We Have Options, had a great line up of speakers and was opened by the Gore District Council Mayor Tracy Hicks. Jeanette Fitzsimons then provided us with an overview of Solid Energy's current situation and the collective activities of CANA and its many regional groups. One of the most reported actions was the lively group of around 200 people who greeted John Key as he arrived to open the new Bathurst Mines office in Wellington. A large number of groups opposed to the mining of coal on the Denniston Plateau were represented in the protest and were supported by some Green MPs. Since the previous year when CANA was operating on a national basis with a small leadership team it has been exciting to see the development of so many local groups and a rapid growth in membership. The facebook page supporting the Murihiku campaign, for example, now has over 230 supporters.

Jeanette Fitzsimons

Climate change writer Gareth Renowden followed with a rather sobering description of climate data, changing weather patterns and the huge loss of Arctic and Greenland ice.  has campaigned on 350 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere as being a tolerable level for maintaining a climate equilibrium and yet we have already reached 394 ppm and are currently growing at a rate of over 2 parts per year (it was less than 320 in 1960). Originally most scientists were talking about surviving a 2 degree increase in the average global temperature but original projections are proving to be far too conservative as new data comes in. Scientists a now talking about 4 - 6 degrees being reached by the end of the century. Gareth is the author of Hot Topic (2007) and manages a respected blog with the same name.

Gareth Renowden

WWF CEO Peter Hardstaff presented the BERL report that they had commissioned to investigate low carbon growth opportunities for the Southland Economy. He explained how economic factors have a direct relationship with the survival of the world's wildlife. By accessing the lignite, Solid Energy would effectively be increasing New Zealand's carbon emissions by at least 10% and encouraging low carbon economic alternatives was the most effective way of saving the many animals threatened by climate change. The climate is already changing at a rate faster than many animals are able to adapt to and one of the consequences of this will be a catastrophic loss of biodiversity. While it was thought that dwindling fossil fuel resources would slow emission rates, it is now predicted that we will far exceed our atmospheric limits for carbon well before all the resources are extracted. The need to change to a low carbon economy is becoming even more urgent.

WWF CEO Peter Hardstaff

Medical specialists and practitioners have an obvious interest in the causes of poor health and illness and there is an awareness among many that climate change will have an increasing impact on people's health. Ora Taiao has a growing membership of specialists and health professionals who share this concern. Ora Taiao member and Southland Hospital specialist Dr Mark Smith gave a very thorough presentation describing probable increases of infectious diseases, cancers, mental illness and other health challenges as warmer conditions spread. A changing climate and rising sea levels will also limit our ability to produce good food which is obviously essential for maintaining good health, developing nations will especially suffer. Dr Smith also described how the use of fossil fuels, especially coal, have negative impacts on health and the expansion of lignite mining in Southland would affect the health of the local community.

Dr Mark Smith

Rob McCreath (the surname pronounced "as in death", as Rob likes to say) and his wife Sally formed the Friends of Felton to save the farmland in their Australian Valley from coal mining. Their campaign was successful when the Queensland Premier Campbell Newman declared publicly and in writing that there would be no mining in the Felton Valley. This was the first major win that a farming community had achieved over a mining company in Australia. Rob explained how the Felton farmers had promoted their cause using humour, imagination and forming alliances with groups such as Friends of the Earth that farmers would normally be wary of. He emphasised the importance of sticking to your core message and recognising and using the diverse skills that exist in any community in support of your campaign.

Australian farmers Sally and Rob McCreath

We were fortunate that Artist Wallace Keown happened to be available to explain his inspiration for the  30 year old painting that features in CAM's banners. Apparently this isn't the first time that digging up the lignite has been contemplated and rejected. Wallace's painting clearly depicts what we stand to lose if commonsense isn't reapplied.

Te Anau artist Wallace Keown

Cath Wallace, Co-Chair of ECO New Zealand shared her extensive knowledge of the complexities of the laws that relate to the extraction of minerals and the rights of landowners, especially in relation to the Crown Minerals Act. Farmers in Australia discovered that in law they had no right to refuse access to mining companies on their own land. While it isn't quite as clearcut in New Zealand the Crown Mineral's Act is going through a review that will probably see more favourable wording in support of mining while landowners rights and environmental protections will probably be diluted. 

Cath explained how mineral permits generally ignore external costs of health, social and environmental issues that may result in the course of extraction. While landowners do have the right to stop access on land, many discover that they lose that right if they have given earlier permission to "fossick" or "Prospect". Once a lower level permit has been granted it is relatively easy to gain a permit for the next stage. It is very difficult for a landowner to stop a progression to full scale mining if they have earlier allowed access. In relation to crown owned land it is the Minerals Minister who calls the shots and while Schedule 4 land cannot be mined Cabinet now has the power to reclassify land designation. 

Cath also reinforced the value of farming compared to mining in terms of capital expenditure. Just using the briquetting plant as an example, the $29 million spent on the project had effectively produced only 6 jobs. 

Environmental lawyer, Clare Lenihan explained how the RMA operates in regards to landowners' rights. It is a complex process when Regional Councils and District Councils are increasingly limited in how they can give affect to the multiple elements involved in any consent, especially when issues around climate change have been excluded from the Act.

The Climate Change "Elephant in the Room" when the RMA is being applied. 

Southland District Council Mayor, Frana Cardno, closed the public meeting by expressing extreme frustration with the ever decreasing ability of councils to meet the needs of the people they serve. The Government recently passed legislation that removed references to the "Four Well-beings" (social, economic, environmental and cultural) from the Local Government Act and thereby restricting the ability of councils to include these in their management of consents. Frana has a history of environmental advocacy and is active in the Save Fiordland Campaign, she implored those present to make submissions to the council plan that would give them a stronger environmental mandate to counter the Government's narrow agenda.

Southland District Council Mayor Frana Cardno

This year's festival was undoubtedly a success. We had good coverage in the media with a number of newspaper articles (another link) and Rob McCleath was interviewed on local and National Radio. Despite the National led Government's determination to follow Australia in the blind pursuit of mineral wealth at all costs, there is a definite ground swell of support for a future proofed economy that is not so dependent on dangerous carbon. This is not an "anti" campaign but a movement that is pro Southland, pro environment, pro jobs and pro sustainable economies. Every other speaker during the open day referred to their commitment to ensuring a positive future for their children and grandchildren and surely this should also drive Government policy before short-term financial gain. We can't continue to steal from our children's future to satisfy today's greed!

More photos from the festival - Otago Daily.


Anonymous said…
"Rosemary had to leave the food basket of local produce and packet of mothballs at the gate under the wary eyes of the ProVision guards, who seemed to regard the gesture with unnecessary caution."

That comment is a little on the naive side, don't you think?

Green protesters do have a reputation for sabotage.
bsprout said…
"Green protestors do have a reputation for sabotage"

I am just trying to think of the number of times "Green protester" have endangered lives with protest actions in New Zealand that would give them this reputation. I then tried to imagine the potential danger to the Solid Energy guards from a basket of food being presented in front of TV cameras and newspaper journalists.

Unlike Solid Energy, who have been very vague about their plans and intentions, the Coal Action Network has been very open about its activities and have a good relationship with local police. The local leaders of Coal Action include a Grandmother with a QSM a retired forester and a 91 year old. For a group that focuses on organising public forums and writing submissions it seems highly unlikely that they would initiate violent and dangerous protests.

I think you are naive by accepting right wing propaganda and holding such simplistic views. The mining industry itself has a poor reputation for safety and has spent a considerable amount of money spying on environmental groups. Activists on the West Coast have had their homes damaged and experienced physical threats, clearly people have more to fear from the mining industry than our group.
Anonymous said…
I called you naive first, so there!

Actually, I didn't call you naive.
I suggested the comment was a little naive.

Your comment was that security guards should not have regarded the action with caution. What use are security guards who do not react to any situation with caution?

"I think you are naive by accepting right wing propaganda and holding such simplistic views."

Very persuasive arguement there, bsprout. Think I'll vote for the Greens sometime soon. You are seeking the stupid vote, aren't you?
bsprout said…

Anonymous, I do not wish to trade insults, I would rather deal with facts and evidence. I am more than happy to withdraw my accusation of naivety if you provide some evidence to support your claim that "Green" protesters have a reputation for sabotage. I will ignore your implication that Green Voters would have to be stupid because surveys have shown that most people who vote Green tend to be well educated.

I am also interested in your definition of "Green". Are you just categorising all those who publicly voice concerns about environmental and economic issues as "Green", or are you implying that most protesters are "Green"? I have no idea who all of our Coal Action group members vote for and although many may indeed vote Green we do have Labour and National people who are members or active supporters.
Anonymous said…
Waihopai sabotage.

Trespassing to remove GM crops from experimental plantings.
bsprout said…
Hmm, the Waihopai activist were members of the Ploughshares movement who are a group of Christian pacifists. So obviously we need to be cautious around Christians. I'm not sure who damaged the experimental GM crops but they were definitely not directed to by the Green Party.

Any more links to the Green movement, or are you calling all protesters Green? Perhaps we should make sure people are protected against all MPs, I understand both Gerry Brownlee and Trevor Mallard have assaulted people.

The level of security put in place to protect Solid Energy was over the top and unnecessary, just like John Key's $5.2 million diplomatic protection squad.
Unknown said…
We were former National voters and as Farmers that was against tradition. Not a difficult change being Green, hasn't changed my diet of Beef and lamb. Farming is accountable for decades of change to our environment and now it's time to act. Happy to lobby for a better environment. Thanks for keeping us informed.

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