From recycling to lower emissions to managing mine waste safely, sustainable options are in the news.
By Mark S. Kuhar
Heightened social pressure and a need for economically efficient mining practices will see Australia’s mining industry shift towards a future of automation, electrification and the ultimate goal of zero emissions on site.
According to the State of Play: Electrification report, the majority (89%) of the globe’s leading mining executives expect mine sites across the world to electrify within the next 20 years.
Electrification is a game changer for the mining industry as it allows the complete removal of diesel from mines and, when combined with renewable energy, results in a decarbonised mine site.
Australia’s leading mining companies such as Rio Tinto, BHP, South 32 and Oz Minerals – along with global tech giant Tesla and more – gave input into the report which uncovered that the need to shift to low footprint, electric mines is being driven by economic-, environmental- and health-related opportunities.
More specifically, nearly 79% of mining executives believe there will be a health-related industry class action in the next 15 years and 91% expect the shift to electrics will create new business opportunities.
It’s these perceived health risks – if nothing changes – and economic benefits that State of Play co-founder and chairman Graeme Stanway said is driving the industry to take a close look at current practices and think how can we do this better?
“Electric equipment will allow for a shift from the typical underground mine sites we see today in Australia with many pieces of heavy equipment, powered by diesel, operating underground in confined spaces alongside teams of people, towards a clean future of mining, not seen before,” Stanway said.
“A future where machinery is safe, automated and battery powered. This would effectively cut out two of the biggest issues in mining: carbon impact and particulate exposure and result in zero carbon emission mines.”
Stanway noted that while the industry as a whole understands these benefits, when it comes to individually implementing them as an organisation, cost becomes a key hurdle.
“Our data shows renewables, all electric systems and batteries will help fuel the change towards a healthier, economically viable future of mining, but uncertainty remains when it comes to which area to invest in first, and how.”
He said the industry should focus on collaborating to overcome cost barriers and uncertainty in technology choices that may be beyond the capacity of individual companies. And, while the mass adoption of electrification technology has so far been low, key players such as Independence Group, Gold Fields, South32, OZ Minerals and Barminco are joining forces to accelerate achieving the goal of zero emissions mines.
METS Ignited CEO Adrian Beer is part of this collaboration and said Australian mining companies have a huge advantage compared to their global counterparts when it comes to alternative energy sources.
“Here in Australia we have an abundance of renewables that the industry is tapping into, particularly in our most remote operations. Local mine sites have the opportunity to install solar and wind, and battery energy storage systems to power their operations at a much cheaper cost than many global players.”
He added: “For the country to fully realise the opportunity of zero emissions mines we also need to be able to effectively implement these technologies. We need to modernise our regulatory framework, and consider what skills our sector will need, across the entire range of the workforce, from trades and technicians, university graduates, through to our scientists and PhDs.”
Low emissions future a step closer with technology investment roadmap
COAL21, the Australian coal industry’s low emission technology fund, welcomed the release of the Australian Government’s Technology Investment Roadmap to support the development of technologies critical to deeply decarbonise industry.
COAL21 CEO Mark McCallum believes the roadmap will complement the King Review recommendations and provide a workable framework within which significant advances could be made to both reduce emissions and enable new industries.
“I’m pleased to see that one of the areas the roadmap is focused on is technologies that will continue to supply affordable and reliable energy while also reducing emissions,” said McCallum. “Australia has been a leader in the development of low emission technologies and was first to capture CO2 from coal power stations.
“Importantly, we also have the largest capture project in the world and have further identified two world-class carbon storage sites capable of permanently and safely storing billions of tonnes of CO2,” he said. “As a nation we already have a lot to show for our efforts on low emission technologies and the roadmap coupled with the policy changes recommended through the King Review earlier this [year] should give industry more confidence to invest and accelerate Australia’s emission reduction efforts. COAL21 is working on projects right now that deliver precisely those outcomes.”
McCallum said these included developing Australia’s first carbon hub in Queensland which would unlock the potential to generate clean, affordable and reliable energy, as well as new industries such as hydrogen production, enhanced oil recovery and carbon recycling.
“Low emission technologies like CCS and renewables are partner technologies working towards the same decarbonised objective,” said McCallum. “CCS technology is safe, proven and working around the world; it has been for decades. To date there are a total of 51 large-scale CCS facilities globally with more than 260 million tonnes of CO2 from human activity already captured and stored.
“Given nearly three quarters of global emissions come from energy used for electricity generation, transport, heating and industry, we should continue to develop and deploy this technology across the world,” he concluded.
COAL21 will continue to partner with government and industry locally and internationally to develop these projects and looks forward to participating in the technology investment roadmap consultation process.
Managing mine waste safely
According to a report from The University of Queensland, moving and managing mine waste safely is an ongoing challenge for the mining industry but research underway at the university’s Sustainable Minerals Institute suggests that re-mining the waste could offer an environmental and economic solution.
Dr Anita Parbhakar-Fox, a Senior Research Fellow at SMI’s W.H. Bryan Mining & Geology Research Centre, investigates ways to improve mine waste characterisation and identify remediation options for abandoned/historical mine sites.
Dr Parbhakar-Fox believes many mine waste sites may contain concentrations of ‘new economy metals,’ a general term given to a group of metals and mineral elements essential to the development of emerging renewable, medical and consumer technologies.
“For example, pyrite, a sulphide mineral commonly identified in mine waste and one of the main culprits for producing Acid Metalliferous Drainage, can contain significant concentrations of cobalt – a critical metal used in battery manufacturing for electric vehicles. It’s not just cobalt, other common sulphides such as sphalerite can contain indium used in touchscreen technologies, and molybdenite can contain rhenium used in high-strength alloys. With tech companies seeking alternative sources for these metals, the business case for reprocessing mine waste is starting to get global traction.
“Approximately 120 abandoned ‘priority’ mines have been identified in Queensland, many of which have mine waste features,” she said. “If you think about the volumes of materials being mined, we aren’t mining ore mine, we are mining waste. For example, if the grade of a gold mine is 1 gram per tonne, then what happens to the other 999 kg of material?” she asked.
“We drive past these waste rock dumps or tailings sites and we have no idea of the mineralogy – we don’t know the range of metals in the tailings. Companies are increasingly becoming interested in these potential resources and it’s maybe something valuable to have in their back pocket as operational mines approach closure and they think about reducing the long-term environmental footprint left at their site,” Parbhakar-Fox said.
The economic incentive for re-processing mine waste is strong but so too is the environmental incentive.
In a country pockmarked with mine waste sites, reprocessing offers a chance to reduce the potential significant environmental consequences of poor waste management.
Even with the advances in mine waste management over the last few decades, Dr Parbhakar-Fox warns there are plenty of sobering examples of poor waste management around Australia. “A common example of poor tailings disposal, perhaps even up until the mid-1990s, was depositing tailings and slag directly into rivers and allowing them to run through riverine environments,” she said. “For example, in Queenstown, Tasmania, there are approximately 100 million tonnes of tailings moving through the Queen and King Rivers and, as a result, the ecology has been severely impacted. The tailings and slag have collected in a place called the King River Delta on Macquarie Harbour – if you sample the water there you will find very high concentrations of heavy metals, and they have worked their way through the food chain. Anecdotally, locals recommend to only eat fish from Macquarie Harbour once or twice a week.”
Dr Parbhakar-Fox has been working in this field for 15 years and said she has seen a shift in attitude toward mine waste.
“This field has become a lot more collaborative, the industry and METS companies are more supportive and industry is more receptive to research into their waste products as they recognise that economic rehabilitation underpinned by detailed characterisation offers a way to transform a potential liability into an asset,” she said.
“They fundamentally appreciate it is a mineralogical problem and know that research organisations like SMI, with expertise in mineralogy and mineral processing, can help them unlock that value. This is why in addition to our backend work around reprocessing and rehabilitation, SMI are also looking at mine planning. We are encouraging industry to understand at the beginning of the process how different minerals will react in the future when they are placed in dumps or storage facility environments,” she concluded.
Ready for a decarbonising world?
Climate change and the transition to a low-carbon economy present serious risks, but also important opportunities for the mining sector, according to Kathrine Wartmann, an associate at Critical Resource. These are likely to only grow in importance in the years ahead. The challenge for management teams is how to respond when there is no ‘one-size-ready’ for a decarbonising world?
Commodity demand is becoming ever more influenced by prospects for recycling, electrification, renewable power and battery storage technology, among other climate-related trends. Thermal coal, once a mainstay of the industry, has been largely abandoned by major mining companies.
Companies will face growing pressures to reduce emissions associated with their operations, as well as the use of their end-products, and many will encounter the physical impacts of climate change at their assets. Meanwhile, shifting stakeholder expectations will impact companies’ reputations and access to capital, bringing climate change strategy to the fore in determining whether companies will succeed or fail in the long term.
Climate change is driving major shifts in market conditions, creating opportunities for mining companies. As consumer and voter preferences shift toward low-carbon products, some miners may be able to position themselves to demand a premium compared to high-carbon competitors. Major brands such as BMW and Apple are increasingly seeking greener metals for their products, seeing it as a point of competitive advantage. Governments are also increasingly supportive of ‘energy metals’ and low-emission mined products.
Companies need to think deeply about what they believe a low-carbon future could look like. Conducting thorough scenario analysis to understand the impacts of climate change on their businesses will enable miners to tackle the most important strategic questions – including how demand for specific products and minerals will evolve, and what external factors might impact consumer behaviour – as well as those regarding the vulnerability of assets to physical risks.
Miners need to end ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from their operations. Much of the technology needed to improve energy efficiency and shift to lower-carbon power is already available and cost-effective, but most operations rely heavily on fossil fuels. The cost of shifting to lower-emissions technologies for transport and production is rapidly declining, leaving fewer excuses for companies, despite the dilemmas around how to balance investment related to near-depletion mines alongside longer life assets.
Net-zero and scope 3 targets will increasingly distinguish the leaders from the laggards. In addition to operational emissions, many stakeholders argue that companies are responsible for managing emissions from their supply chains. Miners should already be thinking about whether scope 3 and net-zero emissions targets could be appropriate for their businesses, and if not, how that will be communicated to investors and stakeholders.
Companies that fail to adequately address climate change could face increasing costs of capital. A growing number of financial institutions require companies to perform well on environmental indicators, and to align their reporting with the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosure (TCFD). Setting transparent and well-defined targets will be a crucial way of demonstrating to investors and other stakeholders that companies have fully understood the sources of climate-related risk from their operations, portfolio and supply chain, and have a well-considered approach for how to address them.