Mining a more sustainable future

As an industry that relies on non-renewable resources and depends on delicate geopolitical factors, successful mining operations require a future-focused approach. Here’s how the industry is shifting toward more sustainable practices over the long term.

The mining sector was a dramatically different landscape just a few decades ago. The industry has always relied on utilizing non-renewable resources — yet our technology, our practices, and our environmental knowledge has evolved nearly beyond recognition.

Geology and mining need to be the stewards of the Earth’s resources, and mines must operate as sustainably as possible to safeguard our future.

Those of us in the industry have been heartened and encouraged by stunning advancements in our operational practices over the past few decades. Here are six ways the industry is innovating to support a more sustainable tomorrow, both environmentally and financially.

Selecting the best site

Much of a mine’s environmental footprint and economic sustainability depends on thoughtful, future-focused site selection. In fact, many unnecessary risks and costs can be either mitigated or avoided altogether if the site is chosen well. To that end, experts must evaluate a mine’s potential based on intersecting factors like value, geology and geopolitics. Now, that’s a list that’s fraught with uncertainty — the only “known” variable is geology. But when it comes to evaluating mine geology, the industry is getting much more accurate.

Drones have already transformed the way we survey, and magnetic surveys have dropped substantially in cost (by a factor of 10 times). We’ve also shifted to new methods of collecting data at the potential mine site, which provides a wealth of information in a faster time frame. With onsite evaluations without dependence on a lab, mining is already shifting to more effective tactics for choosing the best possible site.

 

Leveraging better business acumen

Did you know that there’s only about a one in 100 chance that an ore target will convert into a profitable mine?

Mining is a relatively risky business venture, and capital expenditures and large-scale new project approvals are limited. However, with stronger financial and strategic acumen, there is great potential to do more with less.

Strategic moves during the study and geology phase of a project can go far to increase the chances of obtaining financing and support. This requires much more than just geological knowledge, though — it demands the expertise to balance the shifting sands of our emerging geopolitical, societal, financial, technological and climate landscapes. Mining operations need expert advisors who can foresee and balance these future risks. It’s also valuable to work with advisors who understand a global context for mining, since diversification to a global portfolio is a key business strategy to weather potential local downturns.

 

Maximizing value, minimizing waste

Like strong business acumen, efficiency is a key differentiator toward a mine’s sustainability and success. In addition to using up non-renewable resources like minerals, mining operations use large amounts of other resources as well, including energy, water and soil. By taking the two-pronged approach of reducing inputs (such as by diverting surface water and pumping groundwater, or using alternative energy sources like solar or wind) and reducing outputs (by using cleaner production techniques, and reusing mine waste and by-products), mining operations can maximize their efficiency and sustainability.

 

Zero-footprint mines

Five years ago, a report by the Carbon Disclosure Project found half of the world’s industrial greenhouse gas emissions could be traced back to just 50 companies.

Mining operations, particularly those in coal extraction, ranked high on that list. Fortunately, mining companies are evolving their operations to drastically minimize their carbon footprint and “green” their operations. The following changes are just a few common trends in the pursuit of zero carbon footprint mining:

  • Using electric mobile fleets for reduced fuel consumption and improved air quality
  • Using remote operations, where mobile mining equipment is operated from surface (this also feeds in to mining companies’ endeavours toward zero harm)
  • Using variable speed ventilation fans to reduce energy consumption
  • Using “Smart Tracking” to allow for optimized operation of ventilation and fleet management
  • Optimizing extraction method to reduce the amount of waste material

 

Closing and reclaiming mine sites

If mines aren’t properly closed and reclaimed after use, they can present a significant hazard to the surrounding environment. There may be hazardous waste on the premises, which can contaminate soil and water — not to mention posing harm to nearby human and animal populations.

The easiest way to close and reclaim a mine is to minimize the disturbance it causes in the first place. Site selection plays a large role in this, but so do the sustainable mining practices discussed above. Good upfront planning around closure and reclamation is also more financially sustainable, leading to much smaller upfront costs when it comes to putting up a closure plan surety bond.

 

Applying a circular economy approach

We already alluded to the importance of minimizing mine waste, but even with our best efforts, mining operations will always produce some amount of waste material and by-products. What if we could turn these materials into re-usable, financially valuable assets instead of simply storing them or throwing them away? In line with the circular economy approach, many mining companies are finding innovative ways to extend the lifecycle of materials that, in the past, would have been considered waste. For example, one WSP client in Newfoundland has a large amount of rock material as a by-product of their mining operations. Instead, they are shipping and selling it to the U.S. as road aggregate — turning a profit instead of turning over waste.

 

Each of these six considerations will go far toward creating a more sustainable future for mining operations, both fiscally and environmentally. And the timing couldn’t be better.

As the world evolves toward a green economy, mining will become even more important. There will be a large demand for the metals and minerals that drive the green economy. For instance, Canada’s rich deposits in many of the minerals needed for renewable energy technologies presents a significant opportunity for profitable mining projects.

Our natural landscape has 14 of the 19 metals and minerals needed to make a solar panel, to name one example among many.

Mining is evolving to embrace this new challenge. What if we can become a leader in the low-carbon economy, while maximizing the value our minerals and resources?