High angle view of a mine tailings pond. Image: Inmarsat
Environment Opinion

The green economy: mining’s double-edged sword

The green economy poses both an opportunity and a threat to the mining industry. The path we take depends heavily on whether we can get our housekeeping in order. Carly chews the fat with Inmarsat’s Joe Carr

“What is a second?” Joe Carr, director of mining innovation at Inmarsat, asked the audience at the 2019 Tailings and Mine Waste conference in Vancouver.

“Every second, the mining industry produces 100 tons of copper tailings or 250 tons of gold tailings. We make a 5x5x5m cube of gold tailings every second, which is an incredible statistic.”

Inmarsat has had a busy 12 months following the launch of its satellite communications-backed tailings monitoring solution in February last year. Carr’s presentation featured within the conference’s plenary session, and we sat down on his return to London, to talk climate change, the green economy, and how the mining industry’s ability to deal with waste could define its future.

“It’s about bringing the conversation back to people and saying: ‘do you know that the metal in your mobile phone is responsible for the production of half a ton of tailings?’,” he said. “Everyone has these technologies that require materials, but we don’t ever think of ourselves as being responsible for mine waste, because its somewhere else; there’s a disconnect.

“We all use a lot of mining products, and there’s a lot of us. We’ve brought something like 500 million people across the globe out of poverty in the past decade. It’s a fallacy to think that they’re not going to want the things we have. And it’s naïve of us to think that we’re going to want to consume less.

“I mean, the idea that we’re going to not have our washing machines because someone else in India needs one… It’s a lovely thought process, but really, it’s not going to happen.”

The impact of more people

Population growth is compounding the issue of climate change. The global population is projected to reach 11 billion people by 2100, and a third of children under the age of three today will live to be 100 years old.

According to the Minerals Education Coalition , the average American will use 1,360,000kg of minerals, metals and fuel over their lifetime, including 1.77oz of gold, 12,435kg of iron ore and 443kg of copper, and the proportion of copper per person will rise significantly as the drive for renewable energy increases.

A slide from Carr's presentation illustrating an average American's use of metals and other materials over their lifetime
A slide from Carr’s presentation illustrating an average American’s use of metals and other materials over their lifetime

Like it or not, we are all, directly or indirectly, responsible for metal demand, and therefore we are all responsible in some way for the waste this industry produces.

Carr put this into context: “35% of the world’s population lives in two countries: India and China. Going forward, the focus of world trade is going to shift from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to the Indian Ocean.

“If we look at the track that Japan and the US have taken, two industrialised nations. They industrialised as GDP grew. That infrastructure declined and they re-industrialised and renewed it. It’s declining again, so they’ll probably have to re-industrialise over the next few decades.

“Then look at the trajectory that India and China are taking. China has managed to reach American industrial levels at almost half of what America’s GDP was when it reached that point. And they’ve still got 500 million people living in rural poverty.

“India has a greater population than China, their metals use, kilograms per capita, is on the floor compared to China. And yet, all those people are going to want the things we’ve got.

“In the developed world, our grids are built for centralised power. When you look at what India and China and other developing nations can do with renewable energy… Their power is mainly decentralised, they have the chance to jump an entire infrastructure step and go straight to microgrids, wind turbines and battery storage. Whereas we will have to replace all our infrastructure over time and invest significantly more.”

The rise of electric vehicles

This brought the conversation neatly around to the rise of electric vehicles (EVs).

By 2030, EVs are expected to account for 17-38% of the global automotive market. By that date, several countries including Denmark, Sweden, Israel and Ireland will have banned internal combustion engines for new vehicles, with other, larger, economies set to follow shortly after.

“Current copper demand for cars on the road is about 4%,” Carr explained. “If we were to electrify just at that rate, of 17-38%, then copper demand for cars would rise to about 12%. That’s almost tripling the amount of metal demand from the car sector alone in 10 years. That metal must come from somewhere.

Graph showing the global market share of electric vehicles by 2030
Graph showing the global market share of electric vehicles by 2030

“When you look at the amount of money major car companies are investing into EVs, it’s clear that’s the direction we’re going. The amount of copper used in a battery EV (183lbs) is almost four times that of a conventional car (49lbs).

“The average wind turbine – a 1.25-megawatt wind turbine – requires around 7,000lbs of copper. They’re putting 6-megawatt turbines in the North Sea now.”

The World Bank estimates that, in order to meet the 2-degree climate change scenario set out in the Paris agreement, we will have to build four times as many wind turbines as we currently are and sustain that level of construction for a decade.

More metal, more waste

Of course, copper isn’t the only metal that will play a starring role in the green economy, demand for nickel, lithium and cobalt is also projected to spike.

Couple this with the fact that average or grades for these metals are declining and the mining industry has a, rather large, problem on its hands.

For example, we need to mine nearly three times as much material today as we did in the 1920s to produce the same amount of copper. With current production methods, that means generating three times the amount of waste. And this is where risk comes into the mix.

“We’re mining more than ever and we’re producing more waste than ever,” Carr told me. “Mining, as a business, is actually incredibly safe. We’re focused on zero harm. It’s an amazing achievement and we don’t talk about it enough as an industry.

“But then, if we look at our tailings production and our dam failure rate, those two things don’t tell the same story. We’ve produced more tailings in the last 20 years than in the last 100, and the frequency rate of accidents is going in the wrong direction.”

Bar chart showing the amount of material mined versus the failure rate of tailings dams over time
Bar chart showing the amount of material mined versus the failure rate of tailings dams over time

Dry tailings: no silver bullet

Dewatering and dry stacking tailings is widely touted as the best available solution to their responsible production and storage.

“But it’s not just about technology,” Carr cautioned. “Yes, we can dry stack and we can filter tailings. That will reduce the amount of tailings produced, but it’s interesting to note that Vale’s spending nearly US$400 million on this, and 30% of all its production will still be conventional wet tailings.

“As an industry, we’re moving in the right direction. But dry stacking isn’t the silver bullet that some people think it will be. It still leaves us with the problem of what to do with existing dams.”

Reprocessing of tailings is one answer to this question. However, there are many storage facilities that have been rehabilitated. Some are in the middle of nowhere with very little surrounding infrastructure, and reprocessing will not be economically viable for every operation.

The fact remains that, until preconcentration and beneficiation techniques advance, and the production of mine waste can be stemmed altogether, there are vast swathes of dams that need to be properly monitored to ensure the safety of local communities and the environment.

Carr pointed to the Chilean mining industry as a ray of hope in this respect.

“There’s a proposal in Chile for 2020 that will ensure all mining companies implement real-time dam monitoring,” he said. “It defines the monitoring instruments required, the monitoring frequency and the data must be uploaded into a cloud that’s accessible by the regulator.

“The document goes beyond what the United Nations Environment Programme stipulates. It’s applicable at both new and existing mines, so it will apply to all the major miners.

“It will be very interesting to see what those companies do with that, because you can’t implement a better standard elsewhere and then not push it across all of your operations. They’ve all committed to the best available standards globally.”

Running out of time

The crux of the matter is that the green economy, primarily drive by climate change, is both an opportunity and a threat for the mining industry.

If our operations are deemed too unsafe, then we will lose the chance to build mines; we will lose the chance to produce metals and participate in the growth of the cash cow that is the green economy.

Carr summed up our conversation. “The industry must find enough time in which to solve these problems or they will be solved for us,” he said. “Whether that means closing mines, nationalisation or loss of corporate social licence. We can’t maintain the image we have, and we can’t bury our heads in the sand like we have done in the past.

“I know that, in 20 years, I’ll be judged on the mining industry and on climate change by my son. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what came before, our generation is the one that must deal with it. And our corporate social licence to operate will be defined by this.”

1 comment on “The green economy: mining’s double-edged sword

  1. Pingback: May 2020 Vol. 1 - Tailings News Australia (TNA)

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