Philippines minister wants to ban new mines as clampdown deepens

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines’ mining minister wants to prolong a ban on new mines and will review all environmental permits previously granted to the minerals industry, ramping up a campaign to clamp down on damage from the sector in the Southeast Asian nation.

Philippines' Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Regina Lopez answers questions during a news conference at the DENR headquarters in Quezon city, Metro Manila, Philippines October 14, 2016. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

Miners criticized the proposals made on Friday by Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez, saying she seemed determined to put the “industry to sleep”.

The Philippines is the world’s top nickel ore supplier and an environmental audit that has halted a quarter of its 41 mines, and the risk that 20 more maybe shuttered has spurred a rally in global nickel prices.

“I want to put a moratorium on any new mining,” Lopez told a media briefing.

Lopez, a committed environmentalist who has described open-pit mining as “madness”, said she wanted to continue a ban put in place by a previous government in 2012, dashing industry hopes that some restrictions may be lifted following the audit that finished in August.

“I don’t want to fight the mining companies, I can work with them as long as they don’t silt the river, destroy the rice fields.”

Lopez also said her agency would review around 800 environmental compliance certificates (ECC) including those granted to mines. That would come on top of the industry audit that led to the current mine suspensions.

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But a mining industry group said Lopez “cannot unilaterally choose not to issue new permits” because she is required to process new applications under Philippine laws.

“We are still a government of laws, not of just one woman,” said lawyer Ronald Recidoro from the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines.

“It seems that the signal she’s sending to everybody (is) she’s out to slowly put this industry to sleep,” he said.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte warned miners in August to strictly follow tighter environmental rules or shut down, saying the country could survive without a mining industry.

NICKEL AT $15,000?

Manila’s mining crackdown sent nickel prices to a one-year high of $11,030 a tonne in August, though they have since retreated, trading at $10,465 on Friday.

But Goldman Sachs has said the potential for “larger and/or more permanent than expected Philippine mine suspensions” could drive nickel prices to $15,000 by year-end.

Lopez also confirmed the suspension of the ECC of a nickel mine run by private-owned Austral-Asia Link Mining Corp in the southern province of Davao Oriental.

An official at Asiaticus Management Corp, which runs Austral-Asia, declined to make immediate comment.

Lopez had told Reuters on Monday that the environmental permit would be canceled because the mine sits between a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a protected marine protected area.

“We’re now going to have an intense evaluation of all other ECCs. No more mining in any protected areas,” she said.

Reporting by Enrico dela Cruz and Manolo Serapio Jr.; Editing by Joseph Radford