Your kitchen table. A café. The office. The toilet. A bus or an aeroplane. Wherever you’re reading this, look around. How many things are not made of minerals? The list is short. Shorter still is the list of things that did not require minerals in their making. Perhaps you’re reading this on glowing glass. Sand became this screen after reaching 1,700℃. Behind the glass is gold, tin, tungsten, copper, cobalt, tantalum, and lithium to name just some of the minerals. You may prefer ink and paper. Consider the industrial processes required to turn a pine tree into a magazine or a newspaper. From chainsaws to the paperboy’s bike, they all need minerals. Your woolen carpet, from farm to floor, tells a similar story. Even that flax wall hanging your auntie gave you last Christmas came by way of a steel spade and secateurs. Then there’s the footpath, Avanti, Terrano, or Tesla you may have taken to work today. The Massey Ferguson or John Deere with which you just sowed your phosphate… the phosphate. Maybe the helicopters – melting the very glaciers they take people to see – on which your café relies for its customers. Perhaps the plane and crown limousine you took to the most recent meeting about the Zero Carbon Bill, or the mobile phone and iPad with which you prepared for it. This is how we live our modern lives. It’s an unceasing and increasing demand for these things, not a love of digging holes, that makes miners mine.
A long history of minerals
Maori crossed the Alps in search of pounamu. Diggers from the north Atlantic and southern China braved surging seas in the 1800s in the hope of swapping poverty for gold. There have always been New Zealanders willing to gamble on striking it big. Gold brought my parents and grandparents from Gisborne to Hokitika in the mid-1980s.
“We’ve always mined”, my grandfather would say, “you wouldn’t have mankind today if it weren’t for mining”. He was right. Homo habilis began making stone tools 2.6 million years ago. Our evolutionary line has long used minerals to make life liveable. A practice having gone on for a long time is admittedly no reason for it to carry on for a long time. Whaling. Ivory. Slavery. These industries belong in history books. But mining is no such industry. It’s going nowhere. We use minerals every minute of every day.
Despite our shared use of minerals as a species, the mining industry alone is often blamed for its consequences. Coal attracts the most attention. Humans have been burning a lot of it since the industrial revolution. As our population has grown, our carbon emissions have increased. Since the first Agricultural Revolution about 10,000 years ago forests have been giving way to farm land. Once felled, leftover wood rots or burns. Carbon once trapped in trees is released into the atmosphere. The pasture that follows is converted to protein, fibre, and methane. Fossil fuel use and forest clearance has left our species and others struggling to keep our cool. By blaming just producers of fossil fuels, minerals, and food we ignore our role as consumers. A tonne of steel for example, requires at least 600 kilograms of coking coal. It’s as good impossible to produce steel from raw materials – at scale and profit – any other way. A single wind turbine is estimated to require 220 tonnes of coking coal. Cement, another staple of modern society, requires temperatures of 1450°C. An estimated 85% of global cement production is thanks to coal. Humans are adaptable animals. We may find other ways of producing steel and cement or displace these materials altogether. But it will take more than a week or two. Whether it’s gas in the North Island, or coal in the South Island, fossil fuels help to produce a lot of our food, for both domestic consumption, and of equal (if not greater) importance, export. This is not limited to steam in fish factories and freezing works, or heat in dairy factory driers. Hothouses for vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, capsicums, eggplants, and lettuce need a steady supply of heat for their radiators, as do driers for hops which go on to make beer.
LOW emissions MEANS DIGGING DEEP
A world without fossil fuels is one that needs a lot more electricity, and therefore a lot more mining. In 2017, the World Bank Group predicted enormous growth in demand for minerals as countries transition to zero carbon economies. New Zealand's own grid will have to double its electricity generation by 2050 if we wish to remove carbon from our household, transport, and industrial sectors. Whether a person’s making wind turbines, solar panels, or batteries, their shopping list will include aluminium, chromium, cobalt, copper, indium, iron, lead, lithium, manganese, neodymium, nickel, silver, and zinc…it goes on. To keep global temperatures within a two-degree margin of preindustrial levels, the World Bank Group predicted a 1,000% increase in demand for minerals required for batteries, 300% for solar panels, and 250% for wind power. New Zealand’s largest three users of coal are NZ Steel, Fonterra, and Genesis Energy’s Huntly power station. Genesis plans for Huntly to be off coal by 2030, relying instead on natural gas. This will be difficult given ongoing supply constraints for gas due to ageing infrastructure and a lack of investment in the wake of this government's ill considered oil and gas exploration ban. Wind and hydro are largely base load electricity and are a case of use it or lose it. Wind blows and water runs day and night. Except when it doesn’t, and we have a shortage. Then, when we’re all showering, boiling water, and toasting bread, or heating our houses, coal and gas are fired up for peak load electricity. They are fired up at peak demand to prevent power cuts then turned off the rest of the time, though can also be used for base load. Gas and oil will be essential in peaks until battery and hydrogen technology displace them.
Buckets, blades, and biodiversity
Whether it’s coal and iron for steel, gold for jewelry and electronics, or rare earths for solar panels, mining in general is considered environmental vandalism. The government announced at the start of its term an end to mining on conservation land. There are 8,838,470 hectares of conservation land in New Zealand. Roughly one third of the country. Since Polynesian pioneers set foot on these islands about 1280AD, our species has done some damage. About 80% of our land was once blanketed in native forest, from snow and scree down to sand and surf. The first two centuries of hunting moa with fire, and the recent two centuries of clearing forest for farmland has reduced that to less than 30%. Our birds have also had a rough run. About fifty species are extinct. Of the 168 remaining (ninety-three of which are endemic) four fifths are in danger, and one third is in grave danger – unless we step in – of joining Haast’s eagle, the laughing owl, the huia, and the moa. In the context of modern of forest clearance and species loss, mining is a target as wide as a blade on a D10, but it’s a red herring. The real enemies have four legs, not two tracks. The West Coast stretches from Kahurangi Point in the north to Awarua Point in the south, a distance as the tui flies of about 600 kilometres – similar to the distance between Auckland and Wellington. More than a fifth of the DOC estate, 1,898,560 hectares, is on the West Coast. Only Southland lays claim to more, of which 1,260,700 is in Fiordland National Park. About 82% of land on the West Coast is under the department’s management. Of the overall DOC estate in New Zealand, about 3,000 hectares is mined, not even 0.04%. Not even four parts per ten thousand. Proportionally we’re talking a Springbok-All Blacks scrum in an entire rugby field, deadline to deadline. Whatever the ambitions of miners or any other industries within the estate, they have to meet the requirements laid out under the Resource Management Act. Even on private land it’s far from a rubber stamp. The biggest threat to the conservation estate is introduced plants and animals, as former Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright wrote in 2010 when reporting on mining on the DOC estate. These species are destroying our forests and killing our native animals. The top three threats are stoats, rats, and possums – to say nothing of mice, weasels, ferrets, and feral cats. According to Forest and Bird's website, only one eighth of the conservation estate receives any control for these pests - that is to say 87.5% of the DOC estate has no protection against its largest threat. Browsing animals, such as deer, goats, pigs, chamois, and thar are responsible for the degradation of much of our forests and alpine landscapes, yet, aside from the minimal impact of weekend hunters and a struggling feral venison industry, they are largely uncontrolled. Put in context, the physical impact of mining on the entire DOC estate is not small. It’s minuscule. Go to any forest not receiving the care it should be, and you’ll see an eaten-out under story with a few fantails and perhaps a lonely male tomtit. A march down Queen Street or Gibson Quay to push for more pest control would do a great deal for protecting our natural heritage.
Economically, mining is more important on the West Coast than anywhere else. Politicians like the word transition almost as much as sustainability. All miners and mechanics must do is toss the greasy overalls in the wash bin one last time, walk over to the stainless-steel basin, and get a dollop of gritty work soap. Scrub the forearms and palms of diesel and oil, and remove the earth from the fingernails, never to be dirty again. Once clean, swap the Komatsu or the Caterpillar for a kayak or a café, the Hyundai or the Hitachi for a homestay or a helicopter. Steel caps will give way to tramping boots. The woolen socks can stay on. That kayaks, cafes, homestays, and helicopters all come from mining is irrelevant. To get down to recycled brass tacks, mining has an average salary on the West Coast of $114,000, and year-round work. Tourism averages $40,000. That’s assuming there’s twelve months of work in a seasonal industry. Based on a median income of $49,000, this means each new job in mining lifts the average wage. Each new service job lowers it. Getting visitors to “stay longer and spend more” is apparently the answer. I have worked as a wilderness guide at the “high end” of the market. Guests paid the best part of $500 a night per person, about $150 - $200 per half day trip, and stayed for three days on average. I got $18.00 an hour for my troubles. I looked forward to the occasional sixty-hour week. Time and a half made public holidays feel like Christmas. Economics aside, MBIE predicts by 2025 there’ll be 5,000,000 visitors to New Zealand every year, largely thanks to aluminium clad steel floating on fossils. Once they’re here, visitors drive up and down the country, on roads, in emitting cars, and thanks to helicopters visit glaciers melting a little more each time the skids crunch the ice. It’s estimated international tourism accounts for 9% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That under successive governments since the turn of the century DOC has been gradually becoming DOT, providing and servicing toilets, car parks, campsites, walks small and Great, and luxury huts, rather than protecting kauri or kokopu should not be disregarded.
Our other big earners have their impacts. Wave a wand and turn all the fossil fueled transport into machines that put the car in zero carbon, and you'll have eliminated 20% of our greenhouse gas emissions. Bravo. Now go to the idyllic countryside, and fix the other 48%. Close to half of our emissions come from agriculture, mainly due to the conversion of pasture into mutton, milk, mince meat, merino wool, and methane. This is not our food, this is the world's food. We could stop farming. We could stop mining. We could stop accepting international tourists. But we'd do better to find a way of managing the impacts of these sectors without throwing the goose out with the bathwater. We’re a small trading nation and need every industry we’ve got. Without a prosperous economy, we’d need an army of volunteers for our schools, hospitals, and kakapo recovery, if not a navy and an air force. No economic activity, no human activity, is without its impacts. Mining. Tourism. Farming. Forestry. Manuka honey. Apples. Wine. Whatever. None of these would be possible without the technology and infrastructure provided by minerals and therefore mining. Whatever changes may come to the work you do and how you spend your leisure time, for now and for always, what’s yours is mined, and what’s mined is yours.
MWC's full time manager and part time writer. Come here for occasional news and musings on mining, conservation, and regional economics.