Keeping environmental concern rational

Solid Energy has just published its 2006 Environmental Report, highlighting that, for the first time since measuring and reporting its environmental performance, the company met its overall policy objective of having a net positive effect on the New Zealand environment with a 3% overall improvement (or reduction in total effect). However, the company has highlighted the high cost of conservation, and that the cost could probably have been reduced significantly.

Solid Energy CEO, Dr Don Elder, says: “This is a great result even though the area of land affected by our operations increased by 8%. Improving our environmental stewardship, while at the same time managing growth is challenging, but we’re making real progress. Our investment in environmental research is now having a practical application across our business, with a focus on improving water and air quality and increasing biological diversity.  Encouragingly, we had no significant environmental incidents last year. These are all positive achievements, but we still have much more to do. Unfortunately all these positive achievements have been overshadowed by our recent announcement that 19 months of delays in accessing ridgeline coal at Stockton Mine will result in the loss of up to five export shipments, reducing the year’s profit before tax by $25 million, and that the cost of the land snail protection programme is now nearing $10 million.

In its Environmental Report, Solid Energy is calling for a rethink on how some of the money allocated to the land snail programme might have been better spent. “This is a national resource issue,” says Elder.  “There are already companies identifying ‘rare species’ at sites of potential developments wondering what the cost to them might be, given our experience at Stockton, or even whether to proceed with their developments. At Stockton we believe at least 90% of the actual conservation benefit could have been achieved for $1-2 million, or only 5% of the actual cost we have incurred.

“The other question is what would have been a better use for the other 90% of the costs we’ve incurred. These costs exceed the Department of Conservation’s entire annual possum control budget; they’d be enough to  fund development and maintenance of a major mainland wildlife sanctuary, or carry out predator control over an area the size of Fiordland National Park. A more rational and nationally sustainable approach might have been to spend up to $2 million on protecting the snails and dedicate a significant additional amount to other environmental projects which New Zealanders regard as important.

He added: “To take this one step further, we recognise that some of our past mining was not carried out in a way that meets our definition today of sustainability.  We’re already committed to spending many tens of millions over the next five years, over and above our normal operational environmental activities. Very little is regulatory driven; most of this is associated with the legacy of historical mining. Given the choice and given the competing demands for funding in New Zealand today, would most people instead choose to allocate this money to protect flora and fauna, or to conserve some of our national heritage sites?”

Elder concludes:  “In the choices we make today, we must consider whether we too are most appropriately allocating the scarce resources that are available to shape New Zealand for future generations.  We believe that New Zealand needs to engage meaningfully in this discussion before we, or someone else, repeats our experiences of the past two years at Stockton.”