Geothermal minerals laws clarified

18 February 2015

A new report by a leading natural resources legal expert aims to clear up issues around the ownership of minerals found in geothermal fluids.

Professor Barry Barton from the University of Waikato’s Te Piringa - Faculty of Law and director of the Centre for Environmental, Resources and Energy Law, has completed his research into the issue and the report is the culmination of his role in a two year, $400,000 project with GNS Science: From Waste to Wealth: Commercial Recovery of Products from Geothermal Fluids.

Professor Barton’s role was to establish the legal framework around the ownership of the minerals found in geothermal fluids.

He says his research was an “effort to put a bit of clarity to an interesting piece of New Zealand law”.

He found that under the Resource Management Act, those with water rights also had rights to minerals in the water, but the issue got more complicated if the Crown Minerals Act was involved.

It came down to a statutory interpretation of the word ‘mining’ and whether the removal of minerals from geothermal fluids could be considered mining.

“We concluded that the law is indeterminate but a statutory amendment could make things clearer,” he says.

His report looks at the issue from different aspects, including commercial, property rights and Treaty of Waitangi claims, which Professor Barton says are unlikely to have an adverse legal effect on geothermal mineral operations.

“One of the Interesting things about geothermal fluids is that there is already a high level of Maori involvement in successful commercial ventures,” Professor Barton says.

While not providing all the answers, Professor Barton says his report is “a piece of the jigsaw puzzle” and removes an area of uncertainty in law. “It will also set the agenda for possible law reform. We are looking to avoid the legal system from being a hindrance.”

Professor Barton says a workshop planned for July will discuss how to progress the issue further.

View report

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