How Can we Make Mining More Sustainable?

Posted on May 29, 2018


To Mine Is Human.

Our planet is made of minerals. Ever since prehistoric peoples made spears from stones, humans have drawn resources from the giant, inconceivable reserve that is planet Earth. We burned wood for heat, we smelted metals for tools, we broke rock to build homes, castles and monuments. For centuries, our impact was so insignificant that we came to regard the planet as a source of limitless resources, which we assumed we could withdraw from without consequence. But no longer.

Climate scientists describe the current geological epoch as the anthropocene. For the first time in history, human activity has reached a scale where its impacts are akin to a geological, meteorological or planetary force. We’re changing the planet, and making it less hospitable for ourselves and countless other species. We’re starting to understand that proceeding as we have been is unsustainable; we can’t just withdraw arbitrarily from the bank account that is planet Earth, because it can indeed be depleted.

The Modern World Depends on Mining.

At the same time, we’re more dependent on mining than ever before. The modern world is built on the mining industry. In every smartphone is a microprocessor composed of rare-earth minerals. In every battery are elements like lithium and cadmium. Every one of those batteries stores energy, and that energy is often derived from fossil fuels. The concrete, glass and steel that our cities are made of has to be extracted from the Earth, processed and refined. A significant portion of the world’s economy (and Canada’s in particular) depends on the mining industry. In Canada alone, mining employs nearly 375,000 people (about 1.1% of the population of the entire country!).

It’s safe to say the past, present and foreseeable future of modern civilization depends on the mining industry.

But all of this comes at a cost. Ignoring mineral extraction and the carbon footprint associated with resource transportation, oil and gas extraction is the largest source of greenhouse gas in Canada, accounting for 26% of all emissions in 2015. In Canada alone the history of recorded mining disasters dates back to the late 1600s. The global number of oil spills is approaching 200, with 5 still underway, and the public outcry for safer, more sustainable mining practice is mounting.

So we have a conundrum: the world needs the resources provided by the mining industry, but the industry is contributing to climate change and pollution that will inevitably make the planet less hospitable to life.

There is hope, but it’s going to take both innovation and dedication. In the first part of this post, I’ll address a few technical innovations on the horizon that could make a major impact on the mining industry’s footprint. In the second part, I’ll talk about what it’s going to take from us in the industry to make a sustainable mining industry a reality.

There are promising innovations on the horizon.

New technologies are being developed that can reduce the impact of mining on the environment. In this post, I’m going to focus on three categories of innovation:

1. Exploration

2. Efficiency

3. Extraction

Exploration

It isn’t immediately apparent why exploration could represent one of the more destructive aspects of mining, until one considers that, without access to sophisticated technology, exploration can be a blunt, brute-force operation. In the last century, countless mining sites were opened and then abandoned when the required density of deposits weren’t found. Advances in the science underlying exploration have made an impact in reducing this type of waste. And there are promising innovations on the horizon.

In Canada alone several companies and universities are developing simulation and testing technology built on geologic modelling techniques to ensure that when drilling occurs, there is a high likelihood of striking ore deposits that are economically viable, for example: 

  • Researchers at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland have  developed a set of inversion algorithms that can be used to accurately model potential mineralization. It has been used extensively in exploration for copper and gold.

  • CONSOREM, a consortium led by the University of Québec at Chicoutimi is pioneering a technique called Mass Balance by Precursor Modelling, which can determine, using complex statistical analysis, where mineral deposits may be located based on the chemical composition of adjacent rock.

By employing advanced simulation technology and statistical methods, geologists can more accurately predict the density of deposits of a given site, resulting in fewer failed sites.

  The future is one in which smaller, more targeted, richer sites are opened in collaboration with local populations. When peak value is extracted, sites should be closed, again in collaboration and with oversight from local and indigenous populations. Governments should set minimums on how much value a single site needs to contain before it can be opened, thus forcing the industry to invest in better simulation and exploration practices.

Efficiency

Environmental sustainability has only recently entered the public consciousness. For most of the 20th century, environmental impact wasn’t a consideration for industry (the concept wasn’t really in the corporate vocabulary until very recently!). Mining can be highly inefficient, and inefficiency represents wasted energy, more pollution and diminished value, so there are multiple incentives for companies to seek increased efficiencies.

 Let’s zoom in on the cement industry for an example of how increased efficiency can represent simultaneous financial and environmental gains.

 In 2013, cement giant Lafarge was experimenting with ways to reduce its carbon footprint, while also realizing savings on fuel costs. And so the company’s Bath Cement plant initiated a project to research the use of waste materials such as railway ties, telephone poles, construction and demolition debris, shingles, paper sludge, and coated cardboard as fuel.

Lafarge has continued with these initiatives, including a program that seeks to replace coke and coal as its fuel sources for its cement kilns, enlisting the help of researchers from Queen’s University in several testing phases, determining the viability of using industrial waste materials and even household waste products (non-recyclable packaging, textiles, carpet, disposable cups) as lower-carbon sources of fuel. The cement industry produces as much as 3.8% of Canada’s carbon dioxide emissions, and so finding low-carbon alternatives is essential to making the industry more sustainable.

  "The future is one in which mining sites are powered by sustainable and renewable energy sources, that are supplied and managed by local populations, and after the sites close the energy infrastructure remains active, powering local communities with low-cost, greener energy for decades to come."

Extraction

There are clear environmental concerns that stem from the extractive process itself. The extraction of metals like copper and zinc, for example, can result in large quantities of waste arsenic. In an interview I conducted with Dr. Ahmad Ghahreman, we discussed a study of Giant Gold Mine in Yellowknife, NWT, which showed that the mine had produced 7,000,000 oz of gold, but in doing so also produced 237,000 tons of arsenic trioxide dust. Dr. Ghahreman developed a novel process for chemically immobilizing the arsenic that would reduce the forecasted cost of $1 billion by a staggering 40%.

These innovations are only the beginning. The Canada Mining Innovation Council (CMIC) and Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI) joined together in 2017 to create CLEER (Clean, Low Energy, Engaged and Remediated.) CLEER plans to increase the mining sector’s performance, productivity and competitiveness by tackling the global challenges of water, energy, and environmental footprint with bold targets of a 50% reduction in each area by 2027. Further to that, the Ontario Mining Association recently published a list highlighting 100 innovations in the Canadian mining industry, many of which directly addressed issues of mining site remediation, including reducing bauxite waste, implementing solar panel arrays for tailings sites, and hydroseeding, a planting process which is able to cover large areas with a slurry of grass seed, fertilizer and water to seal a closed site.

  The future is one in which extraction doesn’t occur unless a proposed remediation forecast falls within a reasonable (fifteen-year) timeline and where companies can’t realize the full profits of an extraction until remediation is complete. Remediation forecasts should be reviewed and revised by local and indigenous populations before being approved. In essence, profits should be withheld until remediation is accomplished.

Technology without commitment is not a solution

 While these innovations are promising, innovation without commitment won’t get us to where we need to be. We need active engagement from the mining industry to apply these innovations. We need investment in R&D to develop new, more sustainable practices. We need, as an industry, to engage in transparent, evidence-based analysis of current practices; to publish and share our findings as widely as possibly; to establish a community of practice around continuous improvement, setting new and higher benchmarks for sustainability. We need governments to analyze industry findings and use them to set increasingly higher standards for the industry to follow. We need to maintain and strengthen the relationship between academic research and the mining industry, so new innovations and practices are moved out of the ivory tower and into the field.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to collaborate with local and indigenous communities that live in mining regions to design, implement, measure and be held accountable for more sustainable practices. In order to fully realize the opportunities presented by innovative practices, the industry needs to collaborate with and be accountable to the people who have depended on the land for centuries. These local and indigenous populations are a key stakeholder, because they have a vested interest in maintaining the livability of their communities (especially after mining operations cease). This added layer of accountability and community integration will provide the impetus for leveraging these technologies, leaving not only communities, but ecosystems preserved and even enriched. Working with indigenous communities will help bridge the gap between innovation and practice.

Progress is being made. The map below (source: Government of Canada) represents all the major mining sites in Canada where active agreements with Indigenous peoples are in place.

However; the following map includes those where no agreements with First Nations or Indigenous peoples exist. As you can see, there’s still work to be done.

The changing of the guard is an opportunity.

The looming retirement crisis in the global mining industry is a turning point, not only from the perspective of human resources and demographics, but also because of the opportunity it presents. The influx of new graduates with fresh ideas, a respect for the environment, and creative thinking will pave the way for a more sustainable industry of tomorrow. There is an urgent need to focus on graduating and recruiting young mining professionals who understand the fundamental science underlying natural resources, and who also understand the social responsibility of the industry in the 21st century. We need young mining professionals who understand that sustainability makes good business and managerial sense. We need to hire the bright young minds who are willing to innovate, experiment, publish their findings and learn from them. We need to recruit more mining professionals from indigenous communities, to ensure their perspectives are present throughout the planning, exploration, extraction and remediation processes.

   The future of the mining industry is only assured if we align ourselves with the needs and limits of our ecosystem. We can do this. Really, we don’t have much of a choice.