The future of seabed mining in New Zealand waters is up in the air, with mining company Trans-Tasman Resources keen to proceed with its South Taranaki project despite the Court of Appeal sending it back to the Environmental Protection Authority.
Iwi and fishing and environment groups are equally determined to stop it.
What's at issue is what priority New Zealand law gives to jobs and money and to protection of the environment, and how much the wishes of iwi matter.
TTR wants to mine iron-sand from 66 square kilometres of seabed off Patea, shipping the iron-rich particles to Asia and returning the rest of the sediment to the seabed.
The matter is at stage four of a battle, with consents declined, approved, quashed, quashed again, and now sent back to the initial approver, the EPA.
The most recent judgment by the Court of Appeal sends the consents back to the EPA, to be considered in light of points of law, some of them fundamental, that the EPA decision-making committee failed to consider.
The Appeal Court found "multiple overlapping errors of law" in the committee's approach.
But it stopped short of declining the consents altogether, as the 13 opposing groups wanted.
Its main finding was that New Zealand's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) legislation aims to protect and preserve the marine environment. That includes preventing the discharge of potentially harmful substances like sediment released by mining.
The TTR board now has to decide whether to appeal the Appeal Court decision to the Supreme Court, which would consider whether the Appeal Court was correct in the points of law it said should have been considered.
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If it doesn't take the matter to the Supreme Court TTR could go back to the EPA to have the consents considered again. It wouldn't be a whole new hearing, TTR executive chairman Alan Eggers said. The EPA already has TTR's information and would have to consider only the consents in the light of the Appeal Court's points of law.
The Appeal Court said the Treaty of Waitangi and role of iwi as kaitiaki (guardian) should have been given more consideration, and it wanted a sizeable bond in case mining damage has to be repaired and more consideration of how the mining would affect waters closer to shore.
The result of going back to the EPA could be changes to the consents, or the decline of them.
TTR did have some Appeal Court wins, Eggers said. Of the 15 points of law opponents wanted as impediments to mining, only six were accepted by the court. It had no problem with consents being granted on the deciding vote of the committee chairman, for example.
Despite what Eggers counts as "wins", the court awarded all the costs to the opponents.
Eggers says New Zealand will need the jobs and income the mining project could bring when the pandemic lockdown is over. He says the South Taranaki seabed has 3.2 billion tonnes of vanadium and titanium as well as iron - metals needed for green, low-carbon technology.
The Government should revisit the EEZ legislation, which is "weak" and make it "workable", he said. He would not talk about giving up the project.
"This project is a great project, with a negligible environmental footprint," he said.
Opposition groups, including Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (KASM), will take their opposition to the Supreme Court too, if necessary, chairwoman Cindy Baxter said.
"KASM will defend it all the way. We owe it to all of our supporters who have relied on us to carry on this fight," she said.