19 Sep 2016

Mining drags on growing economy

8:43 am on 19 September 2016

New Zealand's economy is among the fastest growing in the developed world, but the mining sector is continuing to struggle.

Digger loads up a truck at Stockton Coal Mine.

Digger loads up a truck at Stockton Coal Mine. Photo: 123RF

The mining sector contracted 2.5 percent in the June quarter, due to lower production of oil and gas, and coal, and 6.6 percent for the year.

The national director of industries for E tū, Ged O'Connell, said it had been a grim year for the dwindling number of coal miners, with low global prices and the stalled sale of Solid Energy hanging over the industry.

"We've been through a few years of restructuring and it's compounded, particularly in New Zealand because of the state of Solid Energy which makes up a significant part of our industry.

"That sale has been held up. Hopefully once they've been sold then new owners will invest and provide us with a bit of a lift in the industry," Mr O'Connell said.

Coal is not alone in suffering a downturn.

Oil was New Zealand's fourth biggest export earner in 2010.

It's now slipped to 19th, earning $561 million in the year to July.

Petroleum Exploration and Production Association of New Zealand (PEPANZ) chief executive Cameron Madgwick said the collapse in international oil prices forced energy explorers to slim down.

"When you have an impact on your revenue - in this case the price of oil and gas - you have to look at your cost base and one of the cost drivers is exploration spend. It's an expensive business."

Official figures show the number employed in mining fell from 7300 in June 2014 to 4400 in June 2016.

But it's not all bad news.

The uncertain global environment has brightened gold's lustre, and prices are forecast to hit $US1400 an ounce by the end of the year.

Australian gold mining companies, Newcrest and Evolution Mining, have started drilling campaigns in Hauraki and in Northland respectively. Oceana Gold has had encouraging results from its drilling campaigns in its Coronation mine in Otago.

The resource analyst at Sydney-based Fat Prophets, David Lennox, also said the fortunes of hard commodities like coal and oil are now looking up.

"We have seen a modest recovery broadly across the commodity sector in terms of prices.

"We do believe now that we will perhaps see somewhat of a more restrained flight [of capital] towards development projects now in the resources sector. It will certainly be a welcome return of spending to the sector in the years ahead," Mr Lennox said.

PEPANZ's Cameron Madgwick said New Zealand energy explorers were preparing to gear up, including gathering more data about potential drilling sites.

However, Mr Madgwick said getting drilling rigs to New Zealand may be a couple of years away.

"In terms of an actual time frame, it's a bit hard to say. But certainly within the next couple of years we'd expect to see the sort of activity we've seen previously."

The government is keen to promote the energy and mining sector.

A Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment paper estimated the development of another petroleum basin like Taranaki could potentially add another $2.1 billion a year to GDP, and create thousands of jobs.

However, the executive director of Greenpeace New Zealand, Russel Norman, said supporting climate polluting industries would be a mistake.

"We already know that we have more than sufficient fossil fuel reserves to make any kind of transition. In fact, we can't afford to burn half the existing fossil fuel reserves and there's not jobs on a dead planet."

Dr Norman said there was plenty of money and jobs from New Zealand working harder toward a renewable, sustainable future.

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