Isaac Davison

Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

Govt aims to speed up big mining projects

The Government is looking at ways of speeding up approvals for big mining projects. Photo / Grant Bradley
The Government is looking at ways of speeding up approvals for big mining projects. Photo / Grant Bradley

The Government is looking at ways of speeding up approvals for big mining projects because endless court action is "frustrating" companies and costing them millions.

The Ministry for the Environment is investigating new laws which would allow granting of resource consents for "regionally significant" projects to be accelerated.

They would also limit the avenues that could be used to appeal against consents.

Energy and Resources Minister Phil Heatley said the oil and gas industry, property developers and groups wanting to build wind farms were expressing frustration at repeated appeals against approval for their projects.

"When you've got a regionally significant project, it's just crazy that you just get them taken back to court time and time again," he told TV3's The Nation.

But the Opposition believes the proposed changes to the Resource Management Act (RMA) will limit the public's right to object.

Mr Heatley's comments come as conservation groups begin their High Court appeal against a ruling that allows Australian mining company Bathurst Resources to remove coal from the Denniston Plateau on the South Island's West Coast.

Forest and Bird and local conservationists are challenging an Environment Court decision that said the effects of mining on climate change would not be taken into account in deciding on Bathurst's consent.

Forest and Bird is also appealing against a related consent.

Bathurst gained approval to mine on the biodiversity-rich site a year ago.

Its shares have lost two-thirds of their value in the past year.

Mr Heatley said he met Bathurst officials last week and they were "tremendously frustrated" at the delays.

"We've got a court system where people can continue to oppose, and what we're saying is, maybe we need to bring in a consenting system where ... you have a first chance, last chance in court, it's only appealable on point of law, and then the answer is either yes or no, and you can get on with it."

He said the Government was considering a system similar to the national consenting process,, which allowed for the fast-tracking of projects such as the $1.4 billion Waterview motorway project in Auckland.

For the Waterview scheme, the public were assured that they would still be heard, but a strict time limit was placed on the consent process.

Community groups called it a "rort" of the democratic process.

Under the national consenting process, the Environment Minister can "call in" significant projects and refer them to a board of inquiry - appointed by the minister - instead of leaving them to be dealt with by local authorities.

"If it's a really significant project in a region - huge amount of jobs, environmental concerns are significant - it might be something that shouldn't go through councils and all the rest of it," Mr Heatley said.

Mining ventures might not be considered nationally significant, but they could pass a test of regional significance.

Labour's environment spokesman, Grant Robertson, said the proposed changes undermined the Resource Management Act and would limit public participation.

"The RMA may not be perfect, but it allows all New Zealanders to have a say on how development occurs," he said.

"Just because that might not always suit a developer or the Government is not a good enough reason to stifle public participation.

"Of course there will be cases from time to time that justify an expedited process. The national significance test is a reasonable one for that, but extending it to a regional level is a bridge too far."

He said Bathurst would have known when it applied to mine on the Denniston Plateau that it would be a contentious proposal.

An independent board of commissioners granted resource consent to take coal from Denniston on the grounds that it would bring "enormous financial benefit", including 424 jobs, to the Buller district and the West Coast region.

But the commissioners also admitted that they granted the consent with "considerable reservations and anguish" because of the rare ecosystems that would be displaced.

- NZ Herald

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