Changing Mineral Exploration Industry Approaches to Sustainability
Ian Thomson, Susan Joyce, 2005. "Changing Mineral Exploration Industry Approaches to Sustainability", Wealth Creation in the Minerals Industry: Integrating Science, Business, and Education, Michael D. Doggett, John R. Parry
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For the last 35 years, mining has been under persistent pressure to change, in common with many other industries, as society in general has come to realize the cumulative effects of uncontrolled development. Environmental legislation introduced through the 1970s and 1980s provided definition to the circumstances under which mining could take place, and management of the environment became progressively internalized as a mining management function. With the 1990s, rapidly evolving social attitudes and expectations brought a new set of pressures related to the well being of communities impacted by mining projects. By the late 1990s, mining was an industry whose role and contribution to society were in question in many parts of the world, with permits to operate more difficult to obtain from the regulators, and well organized grass roots opposition to new mine developments. Leading mining companies have responded to this challenge by attempting to reshape their activities and their public image to reflect contemporary social values, reorienting the industry around a new vision and practices based on the principles of sustainable development.
Mineral exploration retained a go-anywhere licence to discover, measure, and deliver new orebodies for many years after the miners were reined in by public pressure and legislation. Nevertheless, it, too, is now under intense pressure to change as explorers are being challenged to respond to community concerns about their activities, to provide answers to questions about mining before a discovery has been made, and to give assurances that communities will share in the benefits should a mine be developed.
This paper traces the evolution, in general terms, of the mining industry’s perception of its role in development and the shift over time from an inward-looking focus on core business to an industry needing to look outward and demonstrate its positive contributions to social well being. The pressures that the industry has experienced over the last decade are examined, as well as the changes required to become not only environmentally responsible but also a fully integrated part of local society and economies; the sustainable development approach. Emphasis is placed on the role of mineral exploration within this larger set of pressures and how the realities and the culture of exploration make the sustainable development challenges that much greater.
It is concluded that mining has a place in an economy based on the principles of sustainable development that goes well beyond the basic need for resources from the ground. The exploitation of mineral wealth can contribute directly to growth in other forms of capital—human, social, cultural, economic— while protecting the environment, thus generating improved opportunities that will sustain local communities long after a mine has been exhausted. Exploration, the critical first phase of the mine life cycle, is distinctive from mining and has specific challenges from a social perspective. Adopting the principles of sustainable development provides explorers with tools to help manage the social and environmental challenges by asking managers to take a more holistic view and to consider the long-term implications of a successful exploration project.
Best practice approaches are being developed and implemented and recent trends indicate that it will become increasingly important for explorers to be equipped to apply the framework of sustainable development to both the evaluation of geological targets and the management of exploration projects. Educational institutions have recognized that, in the future, exploration professionals will need to have a broader range of skills. Programs have started to appear in several countries in which the basic curriculum for a geoscientist or geological engineer is augmented by environmental and social courses that will equip graduates to take an active role in the implementation of sustainable development.
Laws and regulations have recently been introduced in a number of countries that are intended to encourage socially responsible practices and, in some cases, promote sustainable development in the mining sector. This trend is expected to continue and exploration will become subject to increasing levels of regulation to accommodate the concerns of communities and other interest groups.
It is anticipated that the industry will become increasingly differentiated between those groups that incorporate sustainable development principles and those that retain traditional approaches to doing business. Registration and certification of companies and individuals, both miners and explorers, appear probable in the short term and these processes will be part of the sustainable development approach becoming an essential part of how business is conducted. However, by fully adopting sustainable development as a management function, industry can move ahead of the introduction of legislation. Thus, the mining industry, including exploration, can actively participate in the construction of relevant regulations, rather than be reactive and defensive, as has been the case in the past.
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Global political and economic developments shape both the demand for minerals and primary metals and their supply. Overall, demand has moved broadly in step with economic activity over the past 30 years. Notwithstanding the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries, demand grew more rapidly in the second half of the period than the first. The performance of individual products within this general trend largely reflects the specific nature of their main end uses. The geographic center of demand has shifted away from the mature industrial economies of North America, Western Europe, and Japan toward the newly industrializing countries of the Pacific Rim, China, and India. Mine production rose with demand, but not always in precise step. New capacity was required not just to meet demand, even where that was static, but also to offset the continuing effects of ore depletion. There were also changes in the location of production in response to geopolitical forces, the depletion of ore reserves, and the changing economics of extraction and processing. The number of mines contracted, especially during the 1990s, and the scale of mining operations was increased in order to achieve the requisite cost savings. Prices fluctuated in response to changing balances between supply and demand, trending downward from the early 1970s until the early 2000s. Most products witnessed at least one sharp price spike during the period, usually with continuing repercussions. Prices picked up from 2003, but generally not back to their earlier peak in real terms. Profitability varied according to the products concerned. In many years the average rates of return on capital employed have been insufficient to cover the risks involved.