Cracking the Mining Code
Here’s the bad news: the global mining industry is facing unprecedented challenges from climate change and the mounting regulations being imposed by governments around the world to control the release of dangerous greenhouse gases.
But here’s the good news: the solution to climate changing using emerging “green” technologies is impossible without the mining industry. Everything from your smartphone to emerging technologies like solar arrays and fuel-saving devices relies on rare earth metals that must be mined around the world.
It’s simply impossible to shift to a low-carbon economy without a massive upscaling in the production of many key metals:
- rare earth oxides – catalysts, alloys, magnets (generators)
- platinum group elements – catalysts, electronics
- gallium – LED’s, photosensitive electronic circuits, photovoltaics
- indium – flat panel displays (LCD’s), other electronics
- selenium – metallurgy, photovoltaics, glass (de-greening)
- tellurium – photovoltaics
- cobalt – superalloys (carbide products), batteries
- lithium – batteries
- arsenic/cadmium – alloys
The mining industry is facing unique hurdles from climate change. Locating and fully developing a mine can often take years before the first hole is even dug. For many mining companies, that process can take a decade or more.
The hurdles are political, geographical and technological. Roughly 75 percent of the world’s key resources are in developing nations with unstable political systems and weak markets and technology centers. Much of the heavy construction equipment needed has to be imported and shipped to very remote locations that are often in mountainous, desolate regions of the planet.
Gasoline, water, food, equipment – all must be strategically located before operations can commence. The mining industry also faces the same cost struggle as other industries with fluctuating oil prices and evolving climate regulations. Just as important as fuel is water. You need it for your personnel to live and stay healthy, and you need it in crucial aspects of mining operations.
Then there’s the climate itself. Over the last decade, mining operations have been crippled by droughts, flooding and changing weather patterns (extreme heat, sudden blizzards.)
In Canada alone, weather events have shut down and hindered several key mines over the last several decades. A multi-year drought in Saskatchewan in the late 1980s resulted in the Chaplin sodium sulfate mine nearly halting production due to reduced water levels. Warm winter temperatures in 2006 led to ice-road closures in the Northwest Territories, costing diamond mines millions of dollars for fuel and equipment that needed to be transported by air.
In 2008, heavy rains in the Yukon flooded four kilometers of the Minto mine access road and forced the company to release excess untreated water directly into the Yukon River system. Lower water levels in the Great Lakes also have recently necessitated smaller shipping loads of metals and non-metals.
The problems only seem to be getting worse, according to several studies. One important key to resolving them will be technical innovation and collaboration across a number of fields using the very same rare earth metals companies are mining in the first place.
Many companies are employing fuel-saving technologies at every point in the supply line. Others, like Rio Tinto, are using carbon capture devices and storage technologies. Exxaro, working in Africa, is move into energy as a business and forming a new business growth division exploring wind, solar, and coal bed methane projects.
There is no single solution, that’s clear. The good news for the mining industry is that no solution will emerge without the valuable materials they contribute to the underlying science of dealing with climate change.