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How dirty is NZ coal? Mining lobby faces conservationists

Coal plays a small part in greenhouse gas emissions in New Zealand, Minerals West Coast manager Patrick Phelps told West Coast Tai Poutini Conservation Board this month.

However, coal attracted more attention than any other fossil fuel, Phelps said in his presentation to the board.

The conservation board's draft climate change policy is to not support any new coalmines, or the expansion of existing mines.

Like other statutory boards and government departments, the board has been working on ways to meet the goals set out in the Zero Carbon Act - to make the country carbon neutral by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement.

Phelps said globally coal accounted for 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, but in New Zealand it was responsible for only 7 percent.

"The number one fossil fuels here are oil and gas; the big emitters are the cars we all drove to get here today - and agriculture."

About half the country's total greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, while oil produces about a quarter.

"If you look at it in context, coal accounted for 5.5 million of our 80-million tonnes of CO2 equivalents in 2018," Phelps said.

The use of coal to generate electricity had dwindled over the years, but some industries were still using it because there was no viable alternative, he said. These included steel, cement and lime manufacture, horticulture (glasshouse heating), and dairy companies.

Many North Island industries used natural gas, but that was not an option in much of the South Island - and using electricity would send production costs through the roof, Phelps said.

"Westland Milk goes through 60,000 tonnes of coal a year - if there was no coal, there would be no dairy factory here and all the milk would be going over the hill to Canterbury."

Natural gas has displaced coal as a back-up fuel for electricity generation, and in 2018 Genesis Energy explored the idea of getting rid of coal entirely.

"But then the government announced there would be no more gas exploration; no new permits, and the Genesis statements changed ... supply of gas could fall below demand within the next five years, and it is not clear what all those industries that rely on it will do."

Alternatives to coal, such as biomass or wood pellets, were feasible in a few areas, but not on the West Coast, because there was no mass supply, Phelps said.

The cost of the energy needed to dry them would negate any potential benefit, he said.

Conservation board member Neil Silverwood asked Phelps what percentage of coal mined on the West Coast was exported.

"We produced 1.5 million tonnes and about 1.3 million of that was exported to steel manufacturers overseas," Phelps said.

Silverwood said coal mining could be reduced, without harming local businesses.

"You are saying we can't stop mining because our industries would be damaged, but in fact most of it goes overseas.

"We could mine a much smaller amount and keep all those industries going for 100 years and not have to expand into more conservation areas," Silverwood said.

However, Phelps said New Zealand's coal exports fuelled important international industries.

"The coal we send overseas to customers like Hyundai allows us to buy nice things we don't make here - including Hyundai hybrid cars," he said.

New Zealand Steel has warned that if the price of carbon continues to rise it will have to close, with the loss of hundreds of jobs and the security of steel supply.

"Right now, there is no viable alternative to coal boilers in many industries," Phelps said.

Board chairperson Keith Morfett said the board was not planning to try to stop existing mines from renewing access arrangements.

"But the world is also facing a biodiversity crisis - a lot of the coal measures are also kiwi country - do we want to sacrifice that kiwi habitat for coal?"

Phelps said the main threat to kiwi was not mining but predators - and mining companies were funding pest control the Department of Conservation did not have the money for, in exchange for access to public land.

"Money is a grubby word but everything does come back to money.

"Only 0.6 percent of Crown expenditure goes to conservation and half of that is getting siphoned off for tourism infrastructure.

"There is nowhere near enough to look after a third of New Zealand's landmass."

Board member Suzanne Hill said it was necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now.

"Lots of innovative solutions will come along... the Zero Carbon Act is enshrined in law - we have to make this transition by 2050 and it's all about supporting that transition."

Phelps agreed the climate was in crisis.

"But (to stop coalmining) and deal a massive blow to the economy for just 7 percent of our emissions? With no alternatives in sight yet, I don't see how that helps us," he said.

Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest news service supported by RNZ, the News Publishers' Association and NZ On Air.

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