Mining for the benefit of New Zealanders

Dr Bryce Wilkinson
Insights Newsletter
31 January, 2020

Minerals never mined cannot benefit New Zealanders. They might as well not exist.  

For centuries under English common law property owners could mine below their land “to the centre of the earth”. In 1937 the government expropriated without compensation all such rights to petroleum. Confiscation of common law rights to uranium, gold and silver, much coal, geothermal energy and much else followed. What about the Treaty? What, indeed.

Today the most valuable minerals can only be mined at the dubious pleasure of the Crown. The existing Crown Minerals Act 1991 acknowledges that they should be mined where doing so benefits New Zealanders. Its purpose is to promote mining where it achieves that benefit.

Well and good to this point. Benefit to New Zealanders must encompass every subjective aspect of well-being. It is inclusive. Nothing limits it to income-generating considerations. A raft of safety and environmental legislation ensures that.

The catch is that a 2019 government discussion document considers benefiting New Zealanders as being at odds with the imposed grandiose goal of “reshaping our economy and how we pay our way in the world”. Its vision is of a “productive, sustainable and inclusive” carbon-neutral economy.

The document canvases potentially extremist goals not centred on well-being, such as preserving “natural capital”. Minerals never mined could count as natural capital, yet never benefit New Zealanders.

Nor does the “promotion” of mining sit well with government decisions to prohibit new mines on conservation land, phase out offshore oil and gas exploration, and stamp down on fossil fuels in pursuing zero carbon. Such measures reduce rather than raise productivity. With respect to the fossil fuels goal, a well-designed emissions trading scheme for carbon should do more for wellbeing than specific mining or exploration measures.

In The New Zealand Initiative’s view, voters elect governments to govern to benefit New Zealanders.  Minerals should be exploited when doing so benefits New Zealanders. This means considering all aspects of well-being, not just environmental effects.

This week, The New Zealand Initiative made a submission on the discussion document. We opposed removing the goal of promoting mining for the benefit of New Zealanders from the purpose statement of the Act.

Unless you think that the best form of mining is mining that does not happen, you will agree with us.

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