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Mining for change at the highest level

Carly Leonida, Kirsty Benham and Jeff Townsend discuss how mining companies, both large and small, can have a say in building a better world

This year, the Responsible Raw Materials conference focused on ‘Unlocking a just transition through mining’. As part of program, co-founder, Dr Sarah Gordon, interviewed me (yes, the tables were turned for once!) about the way in which the industry communicates with those outside of mining.

While I waited to speak, I watched some of the other presenters in the stream doing their thing. One presentation in particular caught my eye; Jeff Townsend and Kirsty Benham, co-founders of the Critical Minerals Association (CMA) discussed some practical ways that mining companies can better engage with governments to influence sustainable development.

I’m a firm believer that the mining industry’s foundational role in modern living makes it the perfect platform for instigating positive change, and so invited them to come and discuss the matter further.

“The first thing we need to understand is that mining is a global industry, and all political systems are different,” Townsend told me. “The cultures and priorities within those political systems are also different, and this creates both challenges and opportunities.

“Mining companies tend to be very good at finding the right people to speak to within foreign governments, but not so good at navigating differences in political systems and understanding the way in which entities operate.

“In terms of challenges, when operating abroad, companies must apply legislation from their home country, but they also have to be mindful of domestic legislation. The industry is also highly technical, and companies sometimes struggle to articulate their agenda concisely, using language that’s accessible for decision makers who might only have 15 minutes available for a meeting.”

It’s quite a skill to be able to boil down a 200-page technical report into four sheets of A4 paper that politicians can understand and get excited by. Key to this is understanding the way in which people engage, what’s important to them, and making the information you’re providing fit with that.

The saying, ‘it’s not about you, it’s about them,’ is a good fit here.

Townsend added: “Currently, most government engagement is done by the four largest mining companies, which are not representative of the industry in its entirety. The challenges those companies face are very different to the challenges that small and mid- sized companies face, so really, we need more organisations to step up and share their views.”

I couldn’t help but notice that the challenges in engaging with policymakers are similar to those faced when engaging with communities – covered in this recent article; the industry isn’t engaging enough and it isn’t tailoring its approach for local nuances.

“Is it a social science thing?” I wondered.

“I think it is,” said Townsend. “And it’s almost universal. Everyone has their own views and concerns, but we also have shared values and goals and it’s important to be respectful of that. If we dehumanise communications, then that puts miners on the backfoot before they even start engaging.”

Strength in numbers

Townsend and Benham founded the CMA in 2020 to provide a vehicle for the mining industry to better engage with UK policymakers, and to give a voice to companies of all shapes and sizes.

Today, its membership includes 30+ companies and individuals across the value chain, from junior miners and exploration companies through to consultants and mineral processing experts.

“If you want the industry to speak to governments, it needs to have a collective voice,” Benham explained. “If there are a lot of disjointed voices, every single company will go to government with a different request despite having similar issues. Bringing those voices together makes the message stronger, clearer and more likely to succeed.”

While internally, the mining industry is quite diverse, externally it tends to be seen by society as a collective entity.

By 2030, all new vehicles sold in the UK need to be electric, which means that vehicle and battery production plants need to be up and running by 2023 or 2024. Image: Unsplash

A ‘failure’ by one is deemed to be a failure of many so, while it’s important to present a united front in communications, it’s also important to retain a personal touch and highlight the successes of individuals and companies who are trying hard to better their environmental and social performance.

“I was once told by a now very influential UK politician when he was a backbencher: perception is reality,” said Townsend. “The way that the mining industry is perceived by people, whether it’s true or not, is reality to society. Ultimately, the decisions that will be made come from the majority of society. Therefore, we need to change that perception.”

It’s true. We are at the beginning of a new industrial age that’s going to require new critical minerals and materials to be constantly produced. Unless we give people the information to understand what’s required for the transition and why, then how can we expect them to make the right decisions?

It’s incumbent on the industry to provide accurate information, otherwise that vacuum will be filled by others.

Benham explained: “In terms of the energy transition, we’ve seen a lot of progress around climate change mitigation, and net-zero government agendas over the past few years,” she said.

“We’ve gotten to the stage where governments recognise that they need to do more to enable the green industrial revolution and net zero. Now, they need to look at the practicalities of the energy transition and, most importantly, how to make it a just transition.

“So, thinking about things like, how to produce materials in a way that takes local communities and the environment into consideration, making sure that the highest ESG standards are applied in all activities, and that supply chains are transparent. We’re not quite there yet.

“There’s still a lot of hard work to be done, and that will only happen if industries and governments work together to move that forward.”

Providing an honest opinion

Speaking of transparency, working collaboratively through an organisation like the CMA brings a level of honesty to what companies are trying to achieve when lobbying governments.

Most businesses exist to make a profit, so engaging as an individual company is usually seen as furthering one’s own objectives. Whereas engaging as part of an association means furthering the objectives of an entire industry for the good of everybody.

Townsend said: “Companies are starting to recognise that associations are an effective way of working towards their highest objectives and, also, in getting their voices heard.

“As I mentioned at the Responsible Raw Materials conference, lobbying isn’t easy. You’ve got to say the right thing at the right time to the right person, and they’ve got to be willing to listen. That’s incredibly difficult to achieve.”

In providing a conduit between governments and the mining industry, associations also allow for difficult conversations (and some of the conversations that mining companies and governments need to have today are incredibly difficult) in a constructive and impartial manner. Associations provide security to both parties in that respect.

In July 2021, the CMA published a paper focused on mining environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues entitled: ‘A Blueprint for Responsible Sourcing of Critical Minerals’. This outlined challenges and opportunities for the UK to be a world leader in mining and sourcing critical minerals responsibly and included a number of industry recommendations for the UK Government which were well received.

“In 2020, the UK Government’s position was that there was no critical minerals problem, and the country would buy its minerals from the international market,” explained Townsend.

“Today, critical minerals supply is being detailed as part of the Government’s net-zero paper. The Prime Minister recently spoke about processing critical minerals in free ports, and there’s a critical mineral strategy on the way, so we consider that our engagement thus far has been effective. We used a stepping-stone approach to do that.

“The one place where we could do better, is in the speed of change. The UK is about two years behind where it needs to be with critical minerals.

“For example, it takes 10-15 years to build a new mine. By 2030, all new vehicles sold in the UK need to be electric, which means that vehicle and battery production plants need to be up and running by 2023 or 2024. We’re just not ready for that.

“That’s a reality that the Government needs to address in collaboration with both the mining and automotive sectors, and the CMA is working to facilitate conversations.”

Associations provide a cost-effective way for smaller companies to have a voice at the table when it comes to lobbying policymakers. Image: Unsplash

A voice for all

Both Benham and Townsend agreed that the mining industry is doing a good job today of working with governments, particularly given that this influential capability is still relatively newfound. However, there is always room for more.

A lot boils down to how much time and money companies are willing to spend on communications and government affairs. Because none of this comes for free.

“If you’re a small company, how do you justify that expense when you’ve got to pay your investors back?” asked Townsend. “What I’d like to see are more investors who are willing to put 3% of their investments to one side to pay for ESG compliance and the communications that wrap around it.

“For companies that don’t have that budget yet, associations can help because they can amplify smaller voices higher up the chain. That allows them to engage with governments who are now hungry to know more.”

Benham summarised the conversation neatly: “On the one hand, the mining industry could always do more to engage with policymakers across the globe,” she said.

“And, yes, the industry should be investing more time and resources into influencing changemakers. But governments also need to have an open door and be willing to listen to what the industry is saying if we’re going to see real change – it’s a two-way street.”

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