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Bathurst seeks consent to explore in conservation area

Bathurst seeks consent to explore coal seam in Mt Rochfort Conservation Area

The country's biggest coal company is applying for resource consent to explore a coal seam in the Mt Rochfort Conservation Area, on the Denniston Plateau.

Westport as seen from the Denniston Plateau. Scoop file photo, 2014

Bathurst Coal Ltd (BCL) bought the minerals licence for the area from State-owned Solid Energy last year, and hopes to be mining high grade coking coal from it by 2022.

The company, which has mining permits over large tracts of the Buller coalfield, has applied to the West Coast Regional Council for stage one of an exploratory drilling programme, at a site off the Mt Rochfort road.

In its application, the company says although the land north of Westport is administered by the Department of Conservation as a schedule two wetland, the first site it has applied for is an old drill track with little or no wetland or ecological value.

Bathurst says the other sites it wants to explore may be a habitat for protected snails and lizards, and will need a thorough ecological assessment before further consents are applied for.

Bathurst's fortunes have surged since it bought the nearby Stockton mine and other Solid Energy mines in Waikato from the failed State-owned Enterprise, with the Nelson food giant Talleys taking a 35% share.

The company, which is holding its annual general meeting in Westport today, recorded a record profit for the year to June 2019 of $45 million after tax, and now employs close to 550 people, according to director and chief executive Richard Tacon.

But he is not expecting an easy ride for its plans to mine Denniston coal.

The Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in 2017 there would be no new mines on conservation land.

While the government has been slow to progress that policy, the Land Information Minister Eugenie Sage last year turned down Bathurst's bid to buy two other Solid Energy blocks on the plateau.

Mr Tacon said the exploration consents should be relatively plain sailing, but he expected opposition to the mining consents, and it could be three years before any coal was produced from the Mt Rochfort block.

"Ït will be opposed, we expect that," he said.

"Open-casting is pretty brutal, and Denniston is pretty unique, but a lot of this land has been hugely disturbed by mining for the past 100 years.

"These days we can get the coal out and restore the land to 80% of what it was. The other 20% we can make up by putting money into conservation projects in other areas, as we're doing in the Heaphy pest control area over the next two years -- spending $850,000 a year on it. "

The Denniston plateau had reserves of 12.5 million tonnes of the type of high-grade coal needed to make steel, Mr Tacon said, and most of it would be exported.

'The Buller coal is low in impurities, low in sulphur and our eight customers around the world mix it with their coal so they're using less of their poor quality stuff, and that actually leads to lower emissions, which is better for the climate."

Bathurst supported the government's climate change initiatives, including the Zero Carbon Bill, Mr Tacon said.

"But steel will have to be a part of any future, going ahead. You need steel to build electric cars and windmills, for example. "

The Prime Minister had made a distinction between thermal coal and coal used for steel-making, he said.

Bathurst currently exports 1.2 million tonnes of coal a year to countries including Japan and India, and pays the New Zealand government royalties of about $30m a year.

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