Many see mining as a dated method of providing energy to consumers. By nature, it involves removing resources from the ground. While there are also a finite amount of resources to mine, technological advances can often make it easier to gather ore, oil, natural gas, minerals, or metals under circumstances that were not viable or economically realistic for past generations.
How it works
It may seem counterintuitive to critics, but companies are looking at sustainable mining as the industry’s future. They can do this by focusing on measuring, monitoring and working to improve environmental performance metrics. The keys elements to this approach are:
- Increasing efficiency for harvesting resources
- Minimizing disturbance to the land
- Reducing pollution
- Addressing the closure and reclamation of exhausted mines
- Leadership and culture
- Human rights
- Inclusion and diversity
Canada’s Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) initiative was launched in 2004 and has become the global leader in sustainable mining. The mining association focuses on social, economic and environmental responsibility. It has created tools and indicators to drive performance and ensure risks are managed. Its strengths include:
- Accountability: Participation is mandatory for all members of the Mining Association of Canada (MAC). There are assessments at the mining facilities, which it shares with local communities, so they have a meaningful understanding of what happens at the mine.
- Transparency: A guiding set of 23 indicators is reviewed annually and sent out in TSM Progress Reports. The reports are externally verified every three years.
- Credibility: The TSM also works with the national Community of Interest Advisory Panel, which helps foster trust between TSM and the communities. There is also a dialogue on how to shape the program for improvements.
Smaller companies face hard decisions
While large multinational companies can afford to innovate, even when forced on them by countries with stricter laws, the economics for smaller mining outfits innovating can seemingly be impossible. The smaller companies have fewer resources, but there are other issues. These include:
- They may not have the skills to employ socially and environmentally conscious strategies.
- They have a mine at the less-profitable end of its life cycle, a leftover divested by the larger company looking for more profitable options.
- Government regulations dictated some level of local ownership, which may not be as knowledgeable about cleaner operations.
Challenges for the future
Modernizing mining practices is crucial to all levels of an industry that traditionally invests very little in innovation. With a history of exploiting workers and natural resources, the mining industry understands that it needs to become better environmental stewards and employers. Past efforts were sometimes marred by poor planning, wasteful operations, and rising water and energy prices. It is also expensive to battle local communities, government regulators or indigenous communities, which can lead to delays or even scrapping of projects or expansions. Companies may also remain the victims of bad optics when mining critics post damning photos and videos on the web that focus on mistakes, misunderstandings and bad planning.
Investors calling for change
Meanwhile, investors are looking for meaningful change, often by embracing sustainability strategies, as the only viable option if they want to invest in the business even when the company is profitable. Investor activists may even seek to gain greater control to push their economic and social agenda regardless of the company’s past history, prompting operators and owners to accommodate their need for change.
Today’s industry executives understand that sustainability is the only viable path to the future. Improving operational efficiency can reap short and long-term benefits. It can lead to more cash for new mines, better equipment or more staff. It adds value to the company and its stakeholders while reducing the negative impact on communities, wildlife, water, land and air. Following the pillars of sustainability can reduce the likelihood of ongoing conflict.
Innovation leads the way at Copper Mountain
Copper Mountain Mine‘s Electric Trolley project is an award-winning step toward net-zero emissions. Working in collaboration with SMS Equipment, Komatsu, ABB, Clean BC, and B.C. Hydro, the project uses overhead cables similar to those used by trolleys or urban buses. Instead of carrying passengers, haul trucks use one kilometer of electric cable to move ore up a steep incline out of the central pit to the primary crusher, which breaks it down. This innovative approach reduces carbon emissions by at least 30% over the next five years.
Copper Mountain is planning to expand the system to another pit, which will last an estimated ten years and reduce the mine’s carbon intensity by over 50% within seven years. This is one step in the company’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2035.
The keyhole approach is viable for smaller operations
Another innovative approach to emerge soon is a smart mining approach known as the keyhole surgery approach. Whereas conventional mining utilizes drilling bits three or more meters in diameter, blasting underground or in open pits, or other methods, recent tech-based developments involve intelligent sensing systems and precise excavation techniques that take only the desirable ore and leave the waste rock in the ground. This approach can be used for narrow-veined deposits that are not viable in conventional mining. It minimizes the mining footprint upon the environment and better addresses risk management and stakeholder concerns. No blasting is involved.
The ore is brought to the surface using reverse circulation through a hole one to two meters in diameter. The ore is then fed to a solid-solution separation system and transported via pipeline or truck to a local mill. Using secondary keyhole drilling, the company puts about 50% to 60% of the tailing back in the vein as a paste-like backfill containing cement, which becomes landform tailings. Initial targets are precious metals like gold, silver and copper, but battery metals like cobalt are also a viable option.
Because the project’s scope is more focused, the economics also work out. The benefits include:
- Smaller projects require less cost up front than conventional infrastructure
- Ore is brought to the surface more quickly than conventional methods
- There are additional savings in less tailing management
- Smaller holes mean smaller cuttings that bypass the primary crushing
- Equipment is mobile
New opportunities in Oregon
This push towards new methods will help redefine the mining industry, allowing it to revisit old mines that were no longer economically viable or access veins previously inaccessible. There is also a big push from the Biden administration to create a stand-alone battery supply, including lithium (which is found in the region), to reduce reliance on overseas imports. Companies looking to be at the forefront of this sustainable and smart mining movement here in Oregon can start by staking their claims with the help of an environmental and land-use attorney.