Sunday, 9 June 2019

Is mining facing its second existential crisis?

This is my 50th year in the mining industry, and I cannot remember a time when the industry has been held in such low esteem. I have even heard relatively intelligent people calling for a ban on mining, while clutching their valued smartphone which contains around 50% of all the mined metals in the periodic table.
Society's general perception of the mining industry is that it is a dirty, environmentally unfriendly industry run by capitalists and it is difficult to argue with this. Starting up a new mine requires huge amounts of money, provided mainly by venture capitalists who take huge risks with their money. Mining is always a gamble, with big potential rewards, but also the prospect of huge losses. It is only last year that the Drakelands tungsten-tin mine in Devon had to close after only three years operation, as it was losing money and the investors eventually called time on it.
More importantly to society's perception of the industry is mining's reputation for despoiling the environment and for acting in an irresponsible manner, exacerbated by the recent tailings disaster in Brazil, which was rightly reported and admonished internationally.
Starting a new operation nowadays is inhibited not only by the monetary needs but in proving that the mine will operate responsibly and sustainably. This is something fairly new in the industry.  Society depends on our products but the social license to operate is becoming a pivotal component in new mine start up, as is responsible mine closure, and in the aftermath of recent tailings disasters, dry stacking, dry processing and closed water concentrators will become more prevalent. Minimising water and energy consumption will be crucial sustainability components and techniques such as ore sorting will increase in importance, reducing the amount of material which must be processed.
In a couple of years time, the South Crofty tin mine will re-open. It is an ancient mine and was the last of the Cornish tin mines to close, in 1998. Prior to its closure the water from the mine, and the tailings from the concentrator, were all discharged into the nearby river, appropriately called the Red River, which flowed into the sea off the north coast of Cornwall, at Gwithian, the contamination being clearly visible near the Godrevy lighthouse. Today the river and the sea are crystal clear, and will remain so even after the Canadian company Strongbow commences operations again. Currently a major water treatment plant is under construction, which will treat the water pumped from the old workings before discharging clean water into the river. Tailings from the new concentrator will be pumped underground into the worked-out stopes. This is responsible mining, and the legacy after eventual closure will be that there is no blot on the landscape, which was obviously not the case after closure of many of the late 19th and early 20th century mines. 
Abandoned tailings dumps in Cornwall
Mining is one of the world's greatest emitters of carbon dioxide and mitigating this by techniques such as carbon capture and storage is extremely expensive, and another factor which has to be taken into account when starting up a new operation, or indeed continuing with an existing operation.  As I have stressed many times, not every scientist agrees that the world is warming due to human activity, but whether you feel that CO2 drives temperature, or temperature drives CO2 (see Is CO2 the most maligned gas in history), the industry must be seen to be taking a stand on this and reducing its carbon footprint.
At the beginning of the 2nd industrial revolution, at the end of the 19th century, mining faced an existential crisis. There was a sudden enormous demand for the base metals, to satisfy the needs of the newly developed internal combustion engine and the new energy source, electricity. However the vast quantities of low grade ores around the world could not be treated by the existing methods of concentration, gravity and hand-sorting, and it was the invention of froth flotation which essentially saved the world.
Now as we enter the 4th Industrial Revolution, with electric vehicles and 5G being the immediate future, there will again be an increasing demand for metals and an increasing strain on their supply. Society needs to be educated at every opportunity that mining is essential to sustain our modern life, and, importantly, as we strive for a circular economy, reliance must not only be on primary mining, but on the treatment of secondary deposits and, crucially, particularly for the hi-tech industries, on recycling, one of the greatest challenges, for which mineral processing will be at the forefront.
Twitter @barrywills


  1. Thanks for the post.

    Your post raises a number of issues. I think the main one is that it is near-impossible to have an intelligent debate on many of the environmental subissues of mining.

    This became apparent in the recent Australian election for which the Adani coal mine was a major issue.

    It turned out that the extremist anti-coal, lobby was so aggressive that many swinging voters ended up voting in favour of mining (and restored the existing government). The issue was confusing because ALP's policies were ambiguous (and still are).

    Politics by its very nature uses simplistic arguments, and hence polarises people into extremist camps. The repercussions of the election were agreement that there should indeed be intelligent debate - but I doubt that that will actually occur.

    My favourite quote is a politician who said "how will the existing government stop the sea-level from rising"; and I would strongly encourage that politician to read the legend of Canute. Yet it was this same politician who was also calling for intelligent debate.

    Ideally the mining industry would take a lead role in the debate. However I doubt that that they can also do this and will revert to pro-mining, anti-climate rhetoric.

    On the other hand there is an enormous opportunity. A colleague of mine, Prof. Peter Ridd was effectively sacked for speaking out against some misleading pro-climate change comments (over the years) and many other scientists were not at all happy with this process of gagging.

    To me it is obvious that the mining industry could make enormous contributions to climate change knowledge and other environmental issues and assist the public in making informed decisions. That remains the challenge... If done well this would negate many of the negative connotations of the industry.

    1. Australian mining industry professionals would have better served their industry if they had accepted rather than denying the validity of climate change science in a time frame where they are begging the public to accept the validity of scientific research findings in support of environmentally safe coal mining allocations in aquifers. What has happened in Australia is that the public faith in good science has been severely eroded in part by many industry professionals with science and engineering qualifications.

    2. You are straying off point mentioning "Climate Change" (caps for AGW, not natural climate change). That's an entirely different argument and "accepting validity" is a way of chastising those of us with scientific evidence to the contrary of Climate Change. The point to be made regards this issue is sustainability. Mining operations can be done with concern for the environment and we've proven that. The problem is whether or not people believe mining is an essential industry and of course it is. Without us, your world would literally fall apart, you'd have no heat, electricity, fuel for your cars, etc. So what are youg going to do? The question needs to be raised in all countries with mining operations, not just Australia.

  2. Great article, you have hit the nail squarely on the head. We are living in a polarized society whereby judgements are quickly made with little or no forethought. We are continually distracted by today's technology such that we are losing focus, deep thought and avoiding studying articles in depth to further our understanding.

    Martijn Mannot-Russell, Global Technical Manager Mechanized Shield Tunnelling at BASF, Switzerland

  3. Your comments are on the ball Barry - this is a difficult time for mining and as you say we must face the challenges front on.

    Steven Williams, President at Pasinex Resources Limited, Canada

  4. Yes, there is an existential crisis. I was doing a PhD at CSM on the social license to operate, until I gave it up to get back into the field, and work for an NGO working with artisanal and small-scale miners, and communities around LSM.

    I've spoken recently to ICMM about this, and the surge in responsible sourcing demands, and the industry's slow change is testament to growing awareness.

    I would say SLO is not a new issue, but that miners have forgotten about it during periods of cyclic intensity. Late 1990s after many disasters gave rise to MMSD, a 2 year reflective period that formed ICMM. 20 years on, and we have numerous tailings disasters (even in Canada by a 'responsible' mine), the Marikana massacre, and growing social resentment.

    The crisis I would argue is in the disclosure, honesty, and willingness of large miners to step up and open up about the challenges. See the disappearance of blogs like Jack Caldwell's 'I Think Mining' or the industry now talking to the Pope.

    Social issues are still looked down upon at many mining universities, even CSM, as an 'extra' or 'afterthought'. Until leadership from the top convinces the industry that social benefits are as important as quarterly production targets, there will be further conflict, which in the long-term will be even more costly.

    Saying all that, some companies have more foresight and are taking strides to regain trust, and I've met some absolutely amazing engineers and geoscientists making a difference.

    1. Thanks for this Dylan. There is a lot of initialisation in your comment, which might not be clear to many (including me). Could you clarify, ICMM, MMSD etc, and when you refer to CSM do you mean Colorado or Camborne.
      And why did 'I think Mining' suddenly end in its prime?

  5. This article may give you some hope that things might get better. Remember everything we use or eat is either mined or grown!!!!

    Peter Cameron, Consulting Metallurgist, Australia

    1. Thanks Peter. This basically summarises what I have been saying on the blog for some time- that the mining houses are not doing enough to attract young people

  6. Nicely said Barry. Here in Australia I see mining a being generally accepted socially (with the exception of a few projects such as Adani), however this will change I believe as more and more positions are replaced with automation. Once the employment potential of mining disappears, and all that is left is large, international companies, then that social acceptance will disappear as well.

    Your comments remind me of one of my favourite sayings: "if it cannot be grown, it must be mined". I am sure that a large percentage of the population do not appreciate this.

  7. When an existential/survival problem arises, one should look inward for corrective actions/solutions. Mining and Mineral industry is no exception.
    The industry has been oblivious of the damages it has been creating to the environment and society in their pursuit for quantity (production) rather than the quality of the ores/coal and also the life within and outside the mining areas. The resultant tarnished images of the industry as a dirty, corrupt, socially indifferent entity has infuriated the learned and the common people to despise it and demand its closure.
    In order to arrest this trend and hatred for the industry and the fraternity, all the stake holders – Geologists, Mining engineers, Mineral engineers, Environmental engineers, Policy makers, Ministry – need to put together their knowledge, experience, expertise to realize the ‘Wrongs’, minimize them and maximize the ‘Rights’.
    The professional bodies like SME, IMMs, IIME, CIM etc. should organize joint events to address only these issues in place of annual conferences and paper presentation to arrive at a comprehensive framework for responsible and eco-friendly mining activities. A series of awareness programs involving mining industry and policy makers and people groups to instill an element of understanding, trust and faith in the efforts of the mining industry to overcome the problems at hand for a safer and secure future for the society need to be organized.

    Sooner the better.

  8. Barry Wills offers an astute problem definition and analysis, a wise head speaking from the heart. And Dylan McFarlane may well have identified the core nature of the crisis: “Social issues are still looked down at many mining universities… until leadership from the top convinces the industry that social benefits are as important as quarterly production targets, there will be further conflict...”

    Thanks to Peter Cameron for bringing to our attention the essay by an enthusiastic and thoughtful millennial On this I posted the following comment, “With clarity like this there is hope of bridging the divide between those concerned with social and environmental issues, and those on whom we depend for the science and technologies that will actually create the sustainable future we all seek. Well done!”

    Then I thought to search for a definition of “existential crisis”. This is how it is defined on Wikipedia: “An existential crisis is a moment at which an individual questions if their life has meaning, purpose, or value. It may be commonly, but not necessarily, tied to depression or inevitably negative speculations on purpose in life (e.g., ‘if one day I will be forgotten, what is the point of all of my work?’).”

    This made me wonder whether the current generation of industry leaders really have what it takes to look beyond their “quarterly production targets”. Simply put, leadership like this is not leadership.

    As TC Rao says, “When an existential problem arises, we should look inward for corrective actions/solutions”. However, to do only this may be preaching to the converted. As Barry Wills emphatically stated: “Society needs to be educated at every opportunity that mining is essential to sustain our modern life”. But in saying so, it cannot be “business as usual” or we (business and society alike) will simply keep repeating the same mistakes. Will the real leaders step up, or do we now have to wait for the Millennials to revive what was once, and still should be, a proud and honourable industry?

  9. Hi Barry
    Other than the Brumadinho tailings disaster (and Imperial Metals in BC, Canada) and other tailings issues (Cadia, Newcrest), we also recently have had Rio Tinto blasting a 46,000 year old Aboriginal ancestral site in the Pilbara (at a time when problems with racism and racial/cultural disrespect is on the front pages in the media). We also are seeing the general population equating coal mining to all mining, not realising that you need rare earths for wind turbine magnets and silver for concentrated solar technology mirrors, or lithium, nickel, cobalt, graphite and vanadium for batteries (EV and grid/stationary), and many tech metals such as tellurium, indium etc., for solar PV and PGM’s for hydrogen fuel cells. Thus the decarbonised energy world is even more reliant on metals than the fossil fuel one.
    Sadly, the mining industry has been its own worst enemy with mass retrenchments, apparent lack in innovation (not true but perceived to be), and lack of downstream processing (particularly in the western countries). The remoteness further complicates the out-of-sight-out-of-mind detachment of modern society (who in agricultural equivalent love to have their prime beef steak, but don’t want to know about the abattoir or the farm).
    One of the key innovations in the mining side is happening in battery supported mine site electrification to deal with three issues: 1) diesel particulates, 2) decarbonisation 3) reduced costs of running renewables to power the site (maybe with the help of gas or batteries) and finding that it is cheaper than bring power to site with poles and wires.
    The transitioning to mine electrification may create a different operating paradigm for minerals processing and extractive metallurgical operations as well and multiple standalone microgrids may change the way we design and set up circuits and utilise energy on site.
    One of my frustrations however remain the painfully slow acceptance of new processing chemistry at site. It still remains same-old-same-old, with cyanide, lime and sulphuric acid being the standard go-to reagents, despite novel options that integrate well with tailings dewatering (and therefore reagent recovery options) and are far more selective.
    Once the world starts to see the vertical integration from resources to final metal, alloys and materials there may be more excitement around the mining and metallurgy disciplines. At the moment it is too often seen (in Australia) as converting lighter dirt to darker dirt and shipping it somewhere. It is therefore not seen as something that requires a lot of intelligence or look very exciting.
    Social options also appear limited for FIFO workers making it preferable to stick to large metropolitan areas.

    1. It's exactly a year since this posting Jacques, and a lot has happened since then, much not putting mining in a good light. A recent report has claimed that the mining industry pushed governments to declare them “essential” and that many continue to operate throughout the Coronavirus pandemic leaving workers and nearby communities at grave risk. Mining sites around the world have become hotspots for the spread of coronavirus, and approximately 4,000 mine workers in 18 countries have tested positive, according to the report, by an international coalition of non-profit groups. We have a long way to go before mining can truly be seen as responsible.

    2. Agreed. A recent LinkedIn post prompted me to respond. The situation has not improved in the past year.


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