By Zella Downing, of CANA and Coal Action Murihiku

The Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, the AusIMM, focuses on “promoting excellence across all professional disciplines through advocacy and provision of continuing professional development opportunities.”

New Vale lignite mine, Mataura, Southland.

New Vale lignite mine, Mataura, Southland.

One such development opportunity might have been the AusIMM’s  upcoming field trip this Saturday to the lignite fields of eastern Southland, as part of its upcoming conference – except the proposed development of those lignite fields bears no kinship with “excellence.”

The proposed development of the lignite was one of Solid Energy’s biggest failures. They spoke boldly about the wealth and glory that would flood the region, but the project was a complete washout, and its exorbitant cost helped lead Solid Energy into financial ruin.

Promotional material for Saturday’s fieldtrip describes the aborted briquetting plant as “the initial step in [a] thwarted lignite development strategy”. Promoters need to say something like that because it would be impossible justifying a field trip to a failure. This plant failed to produce the wee energy sumptuous briquettes that it said it would produce because they were plagued with difficulties. GTL’s North Dakota plant had to be closed after spontaneous combustions.

Calling the development strategy ‘thwarted’ is a compliment to CANA and the hundreds of people who took part in the Keep the Coal in the Hole Summer Festival because thwart holds the meaning of being successfully opposed.

What would be the ramifications of openly taking geologists on a trip to see an error in judgment? It could be professional suicide, but it could be the best reason to go on a field trip. Why doesn’t The Mineral Institute encourage its members to openly consider what happens when financial hunger and CEO ego override common sense?

Puzzling on ways to exploit “the potential of NZ’s largest onshore energy resource” has become a fixation to some geologists and mining executives. Thirty years ago Liquid Fuels Trust mooted the idea transforming lignite into liquid petroleum, but studies at the time revealed lignite’s high moisture content was a real problem, so, in order to dry the lignite out, it was suggested they could simply drain the entire Mataura Basin!

“Think big.” or “Don’t think.”? Imagine how much more advanced we would be as a nation if that unbridled ambition went into finding a sustainable solution to our energy needs. The solution is out there, and it will make a lot of people rich, but the industry seems intent to keep flogging a dead horse.

The Southland and Otago lignite comprise 85% of New Zealand’s known coal resources, so the extractive industry continues to act like a heat-seeking missile with an in-built purpose to destroy. The damp allure of brown coal has them aroused, so a new generation of geologists is being taken to have a look and smell the dank perfume of this resource.

Will anyone notice the farms? It is well known that some of the most fertile soils in Southland cover the lignite fields metres below, but in the process of digging up the lignite, much of this fertility and potential for farming production would be lost. When all the focus is on what can be dug up, will anyone notice how agriculturally productive the area is? Will they consider the stability of the community?

Climate change concerns aside, it is a peculiar wisdom that seeks to destroy fertile land to dig up a resource that we know will contribute to the destruction of our earth. Loss of farmland, the change from private to corporate ownership of the land, degradation of community, irreversible damage to soil structure, and the obvious problem of pollution are legitimate concerns.

The destruction of fertile farmland by coal interests is at the centre of a major debate in Australia’s New South Wales, where recent approval of China coal giant Shenhua’s proposal to mine the fertile Liverpool Plains caused the Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce to describe the approval as a “world gone mad.”

 AusIMM’s Code of Ethics directs them to deal with clients, colleagues and the community in a manner that upholds the principles of anti-discrimination, and of equity.   But what if it’s conservation that is being discriminated against? And what if the climate isn’t being given an equitable chance? Where does their code of ethics stand on that?

Attendees of the field trip will be provided with an overview and an update on the potential of this resource, and, of course, they are only talking about the lignite. Soil, water, air, and a vibrant community are not considered resources when dollar amounts are the subject in discussion. Organisers intend to discuss the regional geological setting and coalfields from a number of vantage points, but if all of those vantage points are in favour of mining, the outcome of the discussion is skewed.

Coal Action Murihiku wrote to AusIMM to ask for speaking rights during the field trip. They hoped to give voice to the vantage point of letting the lignite lie by exposing the downside to development. AusIMM has not responded to their request.

It would be a fine thing if AusIMM used this field trip as an opportunity to teach its members that sometimes a resource achieves its highest value by being left alone, but that is unlikely. It is also unlikely that they will point out that lignite is a low grade fuel with no legitimate place in New Zealand’s sustainable future, but they could. The evidence left by Solid Energy’s fiasco lends itself to that interpretation.