Would-be coking coal miner Bathurst Resources has gained tentative approval from the Environment Court to go ahead with its Escarpment Mine project on the West Coast's Denniston Plateau, though environmental groups say they will continue to fight the plan.
The decision is a rare piece of good news for Bathurst, whose chairman last year bemoaned New Zealand's resource consent appeals process last year. Consents for Escarpment were first granted in August 2011, but ran immediately into appeals by environmental groups determined to stop the project.
The Royal New Zealand Forest & Bird Society said it plans to keep fighting the proposal, citing the Environment Court's determination that the open-cast Escarpment development can only go ahead, subject to appropriate protections for parts of the plateau.
Forest & Bird has staked considerable resources on the fight. It argues it has allowed state-owned Solid Energy to mine similar territory in the North Buller region, making protection of the southern Buller plateau all the more important.
However, Bathurst chief executive Hamish Bohannan told BusinessDesk he hoped now that the court-ordered process for carving out protected areas on the disputed plateau, which has seen coal mining in the past and has areas of ecological significance, would see the company and environmental groups agree a common position.
The court has given parties to the appeal until April 19 to agree a timetable for the process of turning the large number of environmental protections recommended by expert witnesses into a plan to allow mining in some areas and protection for others.
"We have proposed as part of a bigger plan that an area be set aside for conserving the ecology there. The court has said 'great idea, it needs to be locked in'," said Bohannan. "Most of the plateau won't be mined."
A second important leg of the arrangements was to agree how rehabilitation would occur after mining was completed.
"What the experts have done is use words like 'should' and 'shall'. What the judge wants to see is 'will' and 'must'," said Bohannan. "
The court's interim decision indicated it is likely to approve the project. Bathurst needs to ensure existing vegetation would be re-established and mechanisms be put in place to permanently protect 745 hectares of land on the plateau.
"The decision summarises weeks of detailed technical evidence and produces a well balanced view," Bohannan said. "Bathurst is now reviewing the detail of the decision and will respond to the court's request to finalise the details of conditions so development can start as soon as possible."
Bathurst has faced two separate clauses of action, one of which has gone up to the Supreme Court as objectors seek to have climate change effects of coal mining considered under the Resource Management Act. That argument has failed in the lower courts so far.
Meanwhile, the company has faced criticism and impatience, particularly from Australian shareholders accustomed to less complex resource consenting processes
Forest & Bird plans to keep opposing the project, while observing the interim court decision "indicates an inclination to grant consent if appropriate conditions can be devised."
"As a positive, the court agrees that the values of the Denniston Plateau are very high and many of these values, including rare plants and wildlife, will be lost if the mining goes ahead," Forest & Bird top of the south field officer Debs Martin said in a statement.
"The court also agreed with our case that after mining has ceased, the forests, streams and sandstone pavements of the plateau will be much less rich and diverse than they are now," she said.
Bathurst's shares sank 7 per cent to 40 cents yesterday, and have dropped 14 per cent this year.