Bougainville Copper faces yet another fight to reopen a big PNG mine
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Bougainville Copper’s efforts to bring the past-producing Panguna mine back online is again in jeopardy over hasty moves by the Autonomous Bougainville government to make changes to the mining laws.
Last week three new bills were introduced to Parliament, including one that would allow a newly formed company to bypass current red tape and go straight to mining any land that is not subject to an existing exploration licence or mining lease.
The problem for Bougainville Copper (ASX:BOC) is that it has been fighting the government to get its exploration licence (EL) over the 1.5 billion tonne Panguna mine renewed.
The Autonomous Bougainville government previously rejected Bougainville Copper’s renewal application, but a court overturned the decision.
“That left us with an EL application still in process over Panguna, and that’s where we assert our rights that we still have an EL over Panguna,” company secretary Mark Hitchcock told Stockhead.
“For them to now be putting the bills forward for reading that purport to actually mining all over Bougainville certainly could have some impact on our rights at Panguna.”
Under the new laws, the newly formed Bougainville Advance Mining Limited would be granted a special mining licence without the company even having to seek landowner approval.
Consent from the traditional landowners is required for the issue of any exploration licence on their customary land, a process which has historically escalated to wide-scale political unrest on the island.
The region has long been known for its copper and gold prospects, but disputes between regional residents and explorers such as Bougainville Copper have marred production since the early 1970s.
Conflict between the Bougainville Revolutionary Army and Papua New Guinea Defence Force escalated to a civil war in 1988 and took almost 10 years to cease.
Now, the Autonomous Regional of Bougainville is seeking independence for its population of 250,000, with a target date of June 15, 2019 set for a referendum on the topic.
Mr Hitchcock said there is strong public opinion against the government’s move to change the 2015 Mining Act.
“From what I’m reading, Bougainvilleans are becoming a bit distressed about just what it means and why [the government] spent so much time getting a really robust Mining Act put together and then in a very short time have some amendments come through that could strip away a lot of powers of the landowners and the people that actually own the resources,” he said.
It has been a long fight for Panguna for Bougainville Copper.
Back in 2014 the company was stripped of its mining licence and handed a two-year exploration licence instead.
Attempts to renew the licence after two years were delayed and Bougainville Copper came up against claims from fellow ASX-listed explorer RTG Mining (ASX:RTG) that it had the support of the landowners to start work on the Panguna mine.
“There is still a tussle going on there,” Mr Hitchcock said.
“RTG executives have bans on them from travelling to Bougainville. ABG has imposed them through the national government.
“It has been causing division and there are definitely different factions down there that are supporting them, but we believe we’ve got strong support from the landowners.”
The three new bills are due to be returned to Parliament on February 12 for further discussion.