Bathurst Resources has cleared another hurdle in its struggle to start coal mining on the Denniston Plateau near Westport but still needs the blessing of courts and faces tough market conditions.
Conservation Minister Nick Smith yesterday granted the Australian company access over conservation land which Bathurst said was a "key step" in the project which has faced vociferous opposition from environmental groups who say native snail, kiwi and geckos are threatened.
Uncertainty surrounding the project and weak commodity prices have resulted in the company's shares falling from 64c to a low of 19c earlier this month. The company's shares closed unchanged yesterday at 22c after the announcement.
The mine would produce high quality hard coking coal that is used for steel making but one analyst said there had hardly been a worse time for such commodities.
Hamilton Hindin Greene's James Smalley said if it was granted final environmental approval it still had to complete building the infrastructure.
While the coal was of high quality, other listed miners in Australia had been hammered by low coal prices and the Denniston project was still to be developed and faced bigger transport costs than those across the Tasman.
The company's managing director, Hamish Bohannan, said infrastructure work could be finished by the end of the year, depending on whether the company got final approval from the Environment Court and the Supreme Court, which will rule on whether climate change considerations need to be taken into account when granting consent. Work on consenting the project started in 2008.
Bohannan said the company could fund existing infrastructure work out of cash reserves.
The company's focus was now on completing the consenting process through the Environment Court which is to hear two appeals within the next week.
Bathurst had provided the court with additional detail around the environmental protection and mitigation measures after it was given tentative approval in late March for the proposed Escarpment Mine.
"Everyone accepts there are parts of the Plateau with high conservation values and our plans include modern mining techniques that will minimise [the] impact and rehabilitate agreed areas, remedy damage caused by old mine workings, and provide certainty to West Coast communities."
When added to the other licence areas on the Denniston, this block could be the mainstay of a sustainable and profitable industry for 20-30 years," he said.
In granting access approval, Smith said the area was not a national park or a conservation park and did not have any particular reserve status.
He said the area did have conservation values although it had been previously mined and was infested by gorse and broom.
Bathurst would pay $22 million for the "loss of conservation values".
The Escarpment project is one of eight permits that make up the Buller Coal Project which the company says could produce $20 billion of coal over 20 years.
It estimates the Escarpment project would employ about 225 people directly when fully operational and would create three to four times as many indirect jobs.