A precedent-setting hearing has begun in Wellington today with an application to use seabed mining in the South Taranaki Bight being considered by the Environmental Protection Authority.
Trans-Tasman Resources (TTR) has applied to undertake iron sand extraction in a 65.76 sq km area between 22 and 36 km offshore of Patea. The company wants to take up to 50 million tonnes of seabed material per year for 20 years.
The marine consent application is the first hearing under the new Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) legislation which came into force in June last year.
The application received 4848 submissions; all but around eight were against the proposal.
Opponents say there are too many unknowns around the effects of seabed mining.
Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (KASM) chair Phil McCabe, believes it is inevitable there will be damage to the environment.
"The question is scale - how much damage will be caused and for how long will the effects be felt?"
The group's main concern is the ecological effect on the marine ecology.
Mr McCabe says nothing on the scale of what is being proposed is being done anywhere in the world and is calling for New Zealand to join Namibia and Australia's Northern Territory in putting a moratorium on the practice until more is known about it.
"We don't have enough of a baseline understanding [of the environment in the application] and therefore we can't monitor the effects going forward, and the company has not provided enough information to satisfy our concerns," Mr McCabe says.
Mr McCabe says the entire coast from Whanganui to Cape Reinga is up for exploration and New Zealanders need to think about whether this is what the country needs.
TTR executive chair Tim Crossley says the company wants to open up a new industry for New Zealand, and for communities to thrive they need new business.
He says the company has invested $8 million into researching the project so it "has been exhaustively researched and is very well understood".
New Zealand has a freight advantage and is better placed geographically than other sources of iron sand including West Africa and Brazil to service China's demand for the product. China makes up more than half of the demand for iron ore.
Proposal differs to deep-sea oil drilling
Mr Crossley says it is important to differentiate what the company is proposing versus deep-sea oil drilling.
"TTR is not proposing deep-sea mining and we're not drilling for oil. Our project is in water depths of typically 20-45 metres so water depths that we're in are depths that can see the effects of surface waves being felt at the sea floor," he says.
The company's task throughout the hearing is to provide evidence to put people at ease about their proposal, Mr Crossley says.
"We do understand why there would be anxieties. We are extremely confident that the science and the economic analysis is robust."
If the application is granted, the company hopes to go into the construction phase of the project by mid to late 2016.
TTR is proposing the iron sand processing would take place on a Floating Storage and Offloading vessel before being transferred to a bulk carrier for export. The remaining material, around 45 million tonnes, will be returned to the sea bed through a pipe.
Mr Crossley says suggestions the processing could be done onshore were not economic and would have increased the company's environmental footprint.
"We now feel we've got the optimal solution here," he says.
A small group of people from KASM and other opponents gathered outside the Marist St Pats Rugby Football Club before the hearing got underway.
$150M benefit to economy – TTR
TTR believes mining iron sands off the south Taranaki coast will benefit New Zealand by $150 million a year in jobs and maintenance.
Key issues are expected to cover the way sediment plumes are dealt with when the 90 percent of sand not containing titano-magentite iron ore is returned to the ocean floor, and its impact on marine life, recovery of ocean floor organisms, and the passage through the area of Maui dolphin and blue whales.
"The main benefit to the region is in the approximately $150 million which will be spent by the project in the region and New Zealand each year, and the economic stimulus which this brings," Mr Crossley says.
While iron ore prices had been sliding on global markets, TTR anticipated production costs far lower than land-based iron ore mining, so expected its product to continue to produce commercially attractive margins.
TTR will use a seafloor "crawler" machine, scooping sands up to 11 metres deep, around 10 per cent of which is usable iron ore.
The five-member panel will be in Wellington all week before moving around the country to centres including in Hamilton, Taranaki and Whanganui. The hearing is set down for around two months.
3 News/ NZN