By Manolo Serapio Jr and Enrico Dela Cruz
MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines is planning to limit the amount of land that miners can develop at any one time to boost environmental rehabilitation, a move that miners say may cut output of nickel ore in last year's top supplier to China.
The new curbs, contained in a draft government order reviewed by Reuters and confirmed by senior officials, follow a crackdown last year that has left more than half the country's mines facing suspension or closure due to environmental breaches.
Mining is a deeply contentious issue in the resource-rich Southeast Asian country after past examples of environmental mismanagement.
President Rodrigo Duterte, who warned miners to follow tighter environmental rules or shut down shortly after he took office in 2016, has so far upheld a ban on new open pit mines, despite a push by senior officials to soften the policy.
The latest move will initially target the country's 30 nickel mines, which made up more than half of the country's 50 operating mines as of end-2017. But officials say it could eventually extend to other metals.
Miners will be limited to a production area ranging from 50 to 162 hectares (124 to 400 acres) at any one time, depending on their size of production and whether they have a processing plant, according to the draft government order.
Mines producing up to 1 million tonnes of nickel ore a year will be allowed to work on 50 hectares at any one time, ranging up to 100 hectares for mines with output of 9 million tonnes and above. Projects with a processing plant will be allowed up to 162 hectares.
Miners will have to reforest worked out areas outside the limits before opening up any new land.
"There is currently no limit in terms of the areas that miners can extract ore from at any given time," Wilfredo Moncano, head of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau, told Reuters.
"But this new rule will limit at any given time the mining operations area to be disturbed. This means they can't just continuously open mining areas without restoring or rehabilitating the areas where they just extracted ore."
While miners in other countries pursue progressive rehabilitation to limit mine closure costs and environmental risks, most governments only require mine closure plans to be implemented after the mineral reserves have been depleted.
TREES AS TALL AS DUTERTE
Duterte earlier this month told miners to reforest areas where they operate, warning he will revoke their permits if he doesn't see trees as tall as he is in six months.
A miners' group said the plan could hit output at some nickel producers, particularly those whose ore deposits don't run deep.
"That is the concern of some miners, that their annual output may be affected by the area limitation," said Ronald Recidoro, executive director at Chamber of Mines of the Philippines.
Further out, however, the policy could help improve the industry's "perception problem", Recidoro said.
"We will toe the line, we have no choice," he said.
The Philippines was the biggest nickel ore supplier to top market China last year, shipping nearly 30 million tonnes. Indonesia has been the top supplier so far this year after Jakarta relaxed an ore export policy.
The Philippines' top nickel ore producer, Nickel Asia Corp, has four nickel ore mines, the biggest of which covers nearly 5,000 hectares and the smallest spanning about 700 hectares, according to its website.
The nickel mining operations of a subsidiary of second-ranked Global Ferronickel Holdings Inc cover 4,376 hectares.
"We have yet to see the adjustments we need to make so this will not affect our target for the year," said Dante Bravo, president of Global Ferronickel.
"The idea is really to limit the active mining areas, so we just have to follow it."
(Reporting by Manolo Serapio Jr. and Enrico dela Cruz; editing by Richard Pullin)