October 1, 2008

NZ Truly a Land of Wealth and Plenty

By WINDER, Virginia

This article was written by a contributor. It is not to be reproduced without permission from the Taranaki Daily News and charges may be incurred.


NEW Zealand is the land of plenty. The challenge now is to use what we've got, says GNS principal scientist Ian Graham. He is the editor of a just- released book called A Continent on the Move: New Zealand Geoscience into the 21st Century. The 387-page book tells the geological history of our land, how it's being used and the potential hiding in its craggy depths. It's the latter that the Wellington man has his sights on.

As GNS Science's mineral resources programme team leader, he wants people to find out what we do have and not be afraid of using it.

He is forever hearing people say: "Australia is the lucky country as it's full of resources, and New Zealand hasn't got any." But Dr Graham says that's not so. "Read chapter 12. We have a lot of resources and lot of potential." The book lists geothermal energy, gravel and sand, groundwater, coal, gold, ironsand, ilmenite sand, oil, natural gas, phosphorite, lignite and a rubble of different building stones as just some of the available resources.

"Collectively, (we have) about two hundred billion dollars' worth of resources untouched," Dr Graham says.

The problem is people are extremely wary of tapping into these resources. "People don't know what they've got and because they don't know what they've got, they're negative about it."

Finding out and providing information - a scientist's reason for being - is the key to breaking down barriers. "This country has a lot of economic potential - you don't have to tell Taranaki people about that, they're reaping the benefits of it - nor Otago people, because of the gold there."

But there are other parts of the country that have significant economic potential in mineral deposits that people don't even know about.

"For example, the whitest, purest clay in the world is produced in Northland," he says, referring again to chapter 12.

New Zealand also has metallic minerals, such as gold and base metals, and is looking just offshore for more. "We are currently studying the potential of those along the Kermadec Arc for example, and we have some major companies in there interested in mining," he says.

And while the coal reserves are under pressure worldwide, down south they could be forgiven for seeing the world through rose- tinted glasses.

"We have one of the biggest lignite (brown or rosebud coal) deposits in the world in Southland."

Dr Graham quotes Solid Energy chief executive Don Elder on the potential of that deposit. "He has said that in 100 years' time, there will only be two countries in the world with coal to export and that's Australia and New Zealand."

Taranaki's oil and gas reserves are also looking good. Last week, New Zealand had its extended exclusive economic zone ratified by the United Nations. This adds a further 1.7 million square kilometres to the zone, so it extends all the way up to the Norfolk Ridge.

"The Challenger Plateau - the Taranaki oil field - could extend right out. Potentially, this is all ours to play with. The biggest issue for us is exploring it. We have, in our extended continent of Zealandia, the potential for very large gas and oil reserves, maybe even bigger than the Middle East."

Taranaki also possibly has offshore ironsand deposits and these are being prospected by a couple of big companies. "But prospecting is a long way from mining."

Most of the ironsand along the west coast of the North Island has come from the Taranaki volcanoes. Another volcanic mineral being put to use is zeolite. This is used for cleaning up environmental spills, in kitty litter and to help improve drainage on sports fields. Again quoting Don Elder, Dr Graham says New Zealand is the most resource-rich country in the world per capita, with fresh water, arable land, energy and minerals. Then there's the power in the Earth. When international journalist Gwynne Dyer spoke in New Plymouth last month, he highlighted New Zealand's potential for producing electricity through geothermal power stations. Dr Graham says the Canadian climate change specialist is right. "There's a real potential to draw on that hot groundwater," the Kiwi mineral scientist says.

Last year, six geothermal systems in the Taupo Volcanic Zone and one at Ngawha in Northland were providing about 6% of New Zealand's electricity.

But the potential is there to do so much more. Dr Graham believes that in 20 years, about a quarter of the country's electricity could be produced via geothermal power stations.

"In addition to that, we have a number of direct uses; that's just using the heat from the water. There's a shrimp farm, for example, near Wairakei and there's a number of horticulture uses."

Water is another potential gold mine: "We compare ourselves unfavourably to Australia. It should be the other way round. We're luckier than they are in one big sense: per capita, we have a lot more arable land and a lot more water.

"As climate change progresses and temperatures rise, Australia is going to have a major problem with water. We're not going to have one. We live in the roaring 40s, we've got a huge mountain range that dumps water."

It's possible that a tunnel or large pipes may need to be built to go through the Southern Alps to bring water to the east coast. "But we have water aplenty if we choose to manage it properly. We could even export it."

While Dr Graham believes New Zealand's mineral resources are there for the picking, he also acknowledges that it has to be done with care.

"We were described by environmentalist David Bellamy a few years ago as the most environmentally conscious mineral industry in the world." Dr Graham says beauty can come from mining "by making sure the waste areas are properly protected from downstream environmental damage and landscaped".

Waste pits around Macrae's Gold Mine in Otago are being turned into a nature reserve and sculpture park. "If we do the process properly, then human beings' increasing demand for resources will be satisfied and the environment won't be the worse for it." In fact, New Zealanders - and arguably the environment - will be better off if these mineral riches are used.

"Knowledge is power, so if we choose to exploit them in the right sort of way, we could raise our standard of living, which is OK, but it's not anything like as high as it could be."

* A Continent on the Move is published by The Geological Society of New Zealand in association with GNS Science and available in all good bookstores.


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