This is the story of a secret miners' conference and why its struggles affect us all. The event was drummed out of Hamilton last October in the face of an expected wave of environmental protests. But it didn't go away. True to industry form, the miners went to ground. And when they emerged in Greymouth last month the 2021 Minerals Forum took place without a hitch. Sort of.
It's true that the conference, carefully renamed the "Equipment Expo", was uneventful. The protest coalition called "Stop the Minerals Forum", which was so active on social media ahead of the cancelled Hamilton event, appeared to have no idea it was taking place. Or possibly it had no idea that the equipment guys were really their arch-enemies the miners.
Nobody superglued their hands to the doors of the venue, or chained themselves there, as they did when the forum was held in Dunedin Town Hall in 2019. There was no melee, with conference-goers trying to get into the venue, protestors attempting to form a barricade, and police in the middle.
And there were no sharp elbows, punches and scuffles between angry protestors and indignant miners (in 2019 there were a handful of arrests, one protester was taken to hospital decrying police brutality and Allan Birchfield, gold miner and chairman of the West Coast Regional Council, lost his shoe).
The Equipment Expo was, by contrast, perfectly sedate. Some 200 attendees came and went from Shantytown, about 10 km south of Greymouth. The venue - an attraction based on the gold rush history of the area - even remained open to the public. The event's organisers recovered their costs. And over two days the conference heard from a wide range of industry players and even government officials.
Panelists included Susan Baas, national manager petroleum & minerals, from the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment. And sessions covered goldminers exploring again in the nearby Reefton Goldfield; large energy users and their carbon liabilities; and, ironically, the challenge and the opportunity of communicating mining's "valuable role now and into the future".
This last topic was particularly relevant in Greymouth, where organisers Straterra, New Zealand's mining industry lobby group, and Freeman Media invited only those who had signed up for the cancelled Hamilton event. They also avoided all publicity, with the exception of a compromised offer to send a reporter extended to the Greymouth Star.
Paul Madgwick, the Star's editor, was incandescent: "We expected to provide full coverage but we were told we couldn't say what the event was, we couldn't say where it was and we couldn't say when it was...the answer to those terms was a firm 'no'."
The Star did run a story, reported from outside the event. It noted the secrecy, the presence of 50 extra police in the area, many brought in from outside the region in case of trouble, and it also reported the division among conference-goers themselves.
Many on the West Coast, including Westland mayor Bruce Smith and Allan Birchfield, were not in favour of the stealth. Neither was Patrick Phelps, Hokitika-based manager of the pro-mining trust Minerals West Coast. They think hiding does the industry no favours.
It was also mildly embarassing when the extra police, with no trouble to manage at the conference, turned their idle hands to traffic stops, checking the locals for alcohol and drink-driving, midday, midweek. It was all a bit Dad's Army. Madgwick says he was stopped at a checkpoint twice.
"The success of the event is equivocal," says Chris Baker, CEO of Straterra. "Did we further a broader public understanding of our industry, something we hoped to achieve when we started this forum? No, we didn't," he says. "But Hamilton wouldn't have done either."
Forum organisers were stuck between a rock and a hard place. While Greymouth's secrecy casts the miners as a fraternity looking inward, Hamilton posed a different risk. A week out from the well publicised event Baker was advised that the level of anticipated protest required traffic diversions, an on-site ambulance, a fence around the venue, and a heavy police presence.
Had the publicised event gone ahead, there's little doubt that the spectacle would have become the story, along with the protestors' objections to coal mining and fears of man-made climate change. Two of Straterra's three highest-paying members are coal miners, though its 60 or so members range from across the sector.
But the national conversation about mining needs to be much broader. Decrying domestic coal production won't dent the record quantities of imported Indonesian coal currently helping to power the electricity grid: the unintended consequence of Government policy that throttled fossil fuel production before electricity generation could reliably do without it.
And more pressing is the need to explore for the minerals we rarely mention. Graphite, lithium, cobalt, platinum-group metals, rare earth elements...the shopping list for the electric motors, lithium-ion batteries, digital technologies and more that we hope will usher in a carbon neutral future is almost as long as the periodic table itself.
As climate change laws revolutionise demand (and drive up prices), New Zealand must ask itself: where will these commodities come from, and how will we pay?
Recycling is one limited option, but nobody credible - not the World Bank or the European Commission - thinks it will come close to feeding the infrastructure revolution that is coming.
The obvious answer is mines - and that means we'll need to flush out a few tunnels and talk to the inhabitants. We could start by letting them hold their forum without a disguise.