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David Bullock
July 21, 2020
Courts of New Zealand

Supreme Court rules on coal mining in reserve areas

The Supreme Court has issued a significant decision on the interaction of the Crown Minerals Act 1991 and the Reserves Act 1977 in Rangitira Developments Limited v Royal Forests and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand Incorporated [2020] NZSC 66.

The appeal concerned a proposal to develop an open-cast coal mine near Westport. A large part of the proposed mine site was situated on a local purpose reserve owned by a local council for the purpose of water conservation governed by the Reserves Act 1977. Rangitira held a mining permit under the Crown Minerals Act 1991, but it was also required to reach an access agreement with the local council to access the mine site.  

At issue was whether the Crown Minerals Act overrode council obligations under the Reserves Act. Specifically, s 60(2) of the Crown Minerals Act permitted the local council to have regard to any matter it considered relevant in deciding whether to enter an access arrangement.  However, the Reserves Act required the council to administer the reserve for the purpose it held (water conservation) and no other purpose.  This included a requirement that the council protect the biological and natural features of the reserve, and maintain its value as a soil, water and forest conservation area. Rangatira argued that the council, in determining whether to enter an access arrangement, was not controlled by the requirements of the Reserves Act because the Crown Minerals Act gave it a broad discretion to have regard to other matters such as the economic benefits of the proposed activity.

The Supreme Court unanimously held the council was required to comply with its obligations in the Reserves Act, and these obligations were not displaced by the freedom given to the council under the Crown Minerals Act to consider any relevant matter.  While previous coal mining legislation had been interpreted as a “code” that might displace other legislative provisions, the Supreme Court held that Parliament, by enacting of the Crown Minerals Act, had deliberately brought to an end the special status of mining legislation.

The decision is an important recognition of the primacy of conservation and environmental protection in decisions relating to efforts to exploit natural resources located on land governed by the Reserves Act.