After hearings in Wellington and New Plymouth, Trans-Tasman Resources (TTR) is confident that its second attempt at obtaining Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) approval for subsea mining will be rewarded. By NEIL RITCHIE.
Trans-Tasman Resources’ first application in 2014 to mine iron sands from the waters off South Taranaki was turned down by the EPA.
This time the company feels it has done everything necessary for the EPA’s Decision Making Committee to make an ‘informed’ decision in its favour.
“We are confident we have done the hard work, but we respect them and are not trying to pre-empt their decision,” TTR chairman Alan Eggers told Q&M towards the end of the Wellington EPA hearing in late February.
TTR, which is about 45 percent foreign-owned, hopes to start offshore mining operations in 2020, assuming the EPA grants the necessary consents during the first half of this year.
Eggers, a fifth generation Kiwi with decades of international mining experience, says that since 2014 the company has completed more scientific and engineering work, more stakeholder engagement, and further analysis that clearly show the economic benefits of the development of its proposed South Taranaki Bight (STB) iron sands project.
These benefits include the employment of over 220 staff and export earnings of about US$400 million per year. Developing the STB resource will also be “a significant opportunity for New Zealand”, says Eggers, and could see this country become “a global leader” in marine mining.
TTR proposes dredging 50 million tonnes of iron sand per year from shallow waters, some 20 to 50 metres deep, and approximately 22 to 36 kilometres offshore from the town of Patea.
The iron sand will be extracted by remote-controlled 450-tonne seabed crawlers, excavating up to 8000 tonnes per hour.
About 10 percent titano-magnetite from the sediment will be processed offshore aboard a purpose-built integrated mining vessel (IMV) that can operate through most weather. The remaining 90 percent of the sand will be returned to the seabed, backfilling mined areas. Overall, the 20-year project will involve extracting about a quarter of a cubic kilometre of iron sands weighing one billion tonnes.
Iron sand mining in this country is an old established industry and has been operating on a large scale for over 50 years. Our iron sand beaches and dune deposits on the west coast of the North Island are some of the largest deposits of their type in the world, stretching along 480 kilometres of coastline with no environmental issues.
Over February Eggers spoke at the Wellington hearing (and was at the New Plymouth hearing though he did not give evidence). At both hearings there was lots of evidence for and against, involving a myriad of information from sediment plume modelling and marine ecology, to fisheries, penguins and whales.
Eggers reckons TTR managed to agree on “most” issues throughout these hearings. “As part of the hearing process parties have worked through outstanding or disputed science and engineering issues, and reached agreement on most.”
For example, he says Sanford Fisheries, the major quota holder over TTR’s proposed mining area, reached agreement over its concerns.
But other submitters who oppose the project, such as Kiwis Against Seabed Mining, Greenpeace, Royal Forest & Bird, will probably never reach agreement with TTR, he adds.
In a few cases the opposition evidence was proved incorrect, outdated or misleading, Eggers says. For instance, the evidence given by Oregon State University professor and marine mammal expert Leigh Torres who said, in collaboration with the Department of Conservation, that any seabed mining would have “a severe impact” on the whale population in the area, citing the results of a recent survey in the STB that found a blue whale population of at least 68.
Eggers says there have been only 14 whale sightings and they were 50 to 100 kilometres to the west and south of the company’s mining licence. Since 1986 there’s only been one whale sighting that was closer and that was some 29 kilometres southwest of TTR’s proposed mining area.
“No sightings have been reported or recorded near our proposed mining area and … these whales feed in deep water on the edge of the continental shelf and graze around the country.”
Eggers says TTR already plans to train some vessel staff as marine mammal observers, already compulsory on offshore oil and gas seismic survey ships, and will scale back dredging operations if any marine mammals come within 500 metres, or even cease operations if they come within 250 metres.
The government’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) supported the TTR application, as did New Plymouth district councillor (and former Associate Energy and Resources Minister) Harry Duynhoven, while the Taranaki Regional Council made a submission, but remained neutral.
Aussie company Origin Energy opposed TTR’s plans but it is believed its prime concern is the setting up of a mining exclusion zone around the infrastructure surrounding the nearby offshore Kupe gas field.
At the New Plymouth hearing held in March, various Taranaki Maori tribal organisations spoke against TTR.
Late last year Ngati Ruanui took out newspaper advertisements claiming the sediment plume from TTR’s proposed seabed mining of the iron sands would be as large as Mount Taranaki (2518 metres high and covering more than 300 square kilometres).
The proposed seabed mining would effectively be a giant quarry that would negatively impact on marine life amongst other things, it claims. Organisations with a marine interest, such as the New Plymouth Sport Fishing and Underwater Club and Raglan Sport Fishing Club, also made submissions opposing TTR’s plans.
But Eggers stresses the project will have a “relatively small” environmental impact, involving areas of only about 0.27 square kilometres (900 metres by 300 metres) mined at any one time.
He also told Q&M that since October 2013 the company has spent about $18 million so far on its two EPA applications.
The country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) marine consent process is “complex and expensive; being an adversarial process makes it very costly”, he adds.
While it is difficult to compare our marine consent process with other national or state jurisdictions, he says this country “is at the upper end of the scale”.
When asked if TTR will have a third go if it’s knocked back again by the EPA, Eggers declines a straight answer.
“We are totally focused on delivering the required information to EPA and all stakeholders to have our marine consent approved in the second quarter 2017,” he iterates.
“We are certainly not going to wreck the environment and we believe the responsible development of natural resources is good for everyone.”
James Stevenson-Wallace, the general manager of MBIE’s energy and resources division, agrees.
He told the EPA that the iron sands are a “world class resource” which the ministry wants developed.
“Since the mid-2000s there has been an increase of interest in exploring for offshore iron sand deposits along the Taranaki and Waikato coasts. There is ‘world interest’ in exploring those opportunities,” he told the four-man hearing panel.
“We believe that granting TTR’s marine consent sends a positive signal to investors that will support New Zealand’s efforts to support foreign investment.”