Quarrying and Mining magazine editor Alan Titchall reports from the second Minerals Forum held in Dunedin recently.
Dawn breaks over the Octagon. I don’t know it, but I am about to walk into a battle at the Harrop Street entrance to the Dunedin Town Hall conference venue. I didn’t get the txt that said show up before 6am to avoid the protest.
The big glass doors to the entrance are jammed with a seething knot of police uniforms, security, and a boisterous mob of protesters out to ‘block’ the forum. It looked like a freedom-campers/buskers gathering gone on the warpath.
There is a lot of noise. Yelling, trumpets, drums, screams, dancing (yes dancing), and accusations of ‘assault’ from both sides. Many delegates are blocked out from the 2019 Minerals Forum about to start inside. But many more are already inside. Some large quarrymen turn up and, taking exception to being cursed as ‘fossil fuel’ offenders, simply elbow-bruise their way through.
As a journalist I have been in warzones and even walked into an IRA bomb blast, but I have never seen someone get their hand bitten before. I put mine in my pocket.
It becomes a farcical race between side entrances, opening for an anxious minute before protestors are rallied to block it via foreign accents screaming down walkie-talkies for more protest power. Police cut chained door entrances with bolt cutters (it’s a fire regulation thing). Those inside must feel like being in that scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie ‘The Birds’, when a frenzied avian flock tries to peck through the doors.
I get into the public library adjoining the Town Hall. The council CEO is negotiating with invading protestors. I am stuck again, but this time with Minister David Parker who I know from the Clark Government days when he was energy minister. A door opens. I tag on to his coat-tails and we are bustled by council staff, armed with swipe-cards, through interior doors that quickly close behind us. Through the bowels of the Town Hall we silently shuffle, before finally popping out into the foyer.
Hello, there’s Dave Cull with his golden mayoral chain. Appropriate for a minerals conference. In his mayoral welcome Dave takes a few pot shots at us and says fossil fuel exploration (not minerals he is careful to say) is at odds with his community and the council he represents. Coal expansion projects are not welcome in his city, he says, wisely acknowledging Dunedin’s history of mining and the fact gold mining was still an important industry for the city.
Attitude towards fossil fuels had changed since the gold rush, he says, adding the risk of (computer predicted) sea levels to flood-prone south Dunedin. As editor of both Contractor and Water magazines I recall the deluge that hit that end of the city in 2015 and a lot of discussion about stormwater investment and maintenance – surely vital to any low-lying urban landscape. Severe storms are nothing new to this country.
The first Christmas here, in 1642 (look it up) was recorded in a storm. And stormwater technology improves all the time, you just have to be prepared to invest in it. New Zealand’s coast is also made of soft sedimentary rock and prone to coastal erosion, so sea wall investment and maintenance has also been vital.
The Dunedin City Council has divested its shares in companies involved with fossil fuel exploration and extraction, and aims to be carbon neutral by 2050, says Dave.
“As city leaders, we have a legislative, as well as a moral mandate, to protect and promote the health and well-being of our citizens. I am responsible to my community – not to business, however many people they employ.” The exploration and exploitation of fossil fuels was a “dangerous and immoral folly”.
This is all very interesting to the very few delegates that actually represent legal coal expansion industry at the forum, but baffling to most of us who are not. Dave tells me later he was only representing his council board and council policies.
Delegates are not amused. They paid to be at the council’s venue. Other speakers throughout the rest of the morning take pot shots at the council’s populist stance.
Through its university, hospital and numerous still legal household open fires, the city of Dunedin is actually a very good coal customer for regional suppliers. Yes, there is a transition for the city, but it is incremental and technology driven.
As Straterra, the natural resources association, concedes on its website – the use of fossil fuels is driving climate change, but the reality is demand for fossil fuel remains strong for many applications (such as steel making and airline fuel).
“This is a very complex challenge that is not helped by ‘ban fossil fuels’ slogans,” it says.
As one forum speaker tell us; “Each one of us consumes around 400 kilograms of steel a year, which represents 800 kilograms of iron ore that has to come out of the ground, and another 300 kilograms of quality coking coal to turn it into steel. At present, there are no commercially viable technologies to make steel at scale, without coking coal.
Like Hitchcock’s frenzied birds, by 11.30am on the first day, the protesters have mysteriously vanished, and don’t return. We remain on high alert. They could be lurking behind those numerous e-scooters littering Dunedin’s footpaths these days.
The two-day forum continues on as a huge success with thoughtful content covering exploration, technology, health and safety and best practice, and all aspects of extraction in our country.
The quarry industry is well-represented too. AQA CEO Wayne Scott chaired a very valuable panel discussion of quarrying heads on the subject of urban expansion which included Mike Swap and Richard Fulton, the Fulton Hogan Otago-Southland manager. Wayne also facilitated a great discussion between delegates and Dave Cull in his capacity as Local Government New Zealand president on the subject of district planning and competing land uses.
Other speakers included David Parker, Minister for Economic Development, Andrew Little (VIP function guest), Minister for Pike River Re-entry, Shane Jones, Minister for Regional Economic Development, and MP Jonathan Young, National’s Spokesperson for Energy and Resources. Kevin Hague, Forest and Bird CEO, was a last minute withdrawal.
Out of the 44 presentations from the forum only four are specific to coal with, ironically, another four covering topics such as transitioning out of coal, and coal and climate change.
Just as important was the launch of the Women in Extractives Network and an Otago University student programme.
As says Chris Baker, CEO of Straterra says; “Our minerals sector provides both a substantial economic contribution to our country and it provides products that are essential to our lives. As we reduce emissions we will need more minerals, not less.
“Further, the adoption of new mining technologies and our role in innovation provides opportunities for best-practice operators and service providers in New Zealand and that was the focus of this forum!”
Flying home a strong westerly wind sweeps bitterly across the Taieri Plains. Miners, protesters, climate-change fanatics and deniers are entrapped together in a semi-monocoque fuselage made from various alloys mined from the earth: Aluminium, zinc, magnesium, copper, silicon, iron, manganese, chromium, titanium, and zirconium.
We watch the safety video together in numb resignation. We are in God’s hands.
The heavily laden aircraft rockets quickly up into the night sky, leaving a trail of spent kerosene vapour over Dunedin City.