We hear a lot about the need for the mining industry to adopt sustainable mining practices. Is everyone certain what that actually means? Ask a group of people for their opinions on this and you’ll probably get a range of answers.   It appears to me that there are two general perspectives on the issue.
Perspective 1 tends to be more general in nature. It’s about how the mining industry as a whole must become sustainable to remain viable. In other words, can the mining industry continue to meet the current commodity demands and the needs of future generations?
Perspective 2 tends to be a bit more stakeholder focused. It relates to whether a mining project will provide long-term sustainable benefits to local stakeholders. Will the mining project be here and gone leaving little behind, or will it make a real (positive) difference? In other words, “what’s in it for us”?
There are still some other perspectives on what is sustainable mining. For example there are some suggestions that sustainable mining should have a wider scope. It should consider the entire life cycle of a commodity, including manufacturing and recycling. That’s a very broad vision for the industry to try to satisfy.

How might mining be sustainable?

The solutions proposed to foster sustainable mining depend on which perspective is considered.
With respect to the first perspective, the solutions are board brush. They generally revolve around using best practices in socially and environmentally sound ways. A sustainable mining framework is typically focused on reducing the environmental impacts of mining.
Strategies include measuring, monitoring, and continually improving environmental metrics. These metrics can include  minimizing land disturbance, pollution reduction, automation, electrification, renewable energy usage, as well as proper closure and reclamation of mined lands.
Unfortunately if the public hates the concept of mining, the drive towards sustainability will struggle. Trying to fight this, the industry is currently promoting itself by highlighting the ongoing need for its products. Unfortunately some have interpreted this to mean “We make a mess because everyone wants the output from that mess”. I’m not sure how effective and convincing that approach will be in the long run.

Focusing on localized benefits

If one views sustainable mining from the second perspective, i.e. “What’s in it for us”, then one will propose different solutions. Maximizing benefits for the local community requires specific and direct actions. Generalizations won’t work.  Stakeholder communities likely don’t care about the sustainability of the mining industry as a whole.
They want to know what this project can do for them. Will the local community thrive with development or will they be harmed? Are the economic benefits be short lived or generational in duration? Can the project lead to socio-economic growth opportunities that extend beyond the project lifetime? Will the economic benefits be realized locally or will the benefits be distributed regionally?
One suggestion made to me is that all mining operations be required to have long operating lives. This will develop more regional infrastructure and create longer business relationships. A mine life of ten years or less may be insufficient to teach local entrepreneurship.  It maybe too short to ensure the long term continuation of economic impacts. Mine life requirement is an interesting thought but likely difficult to enforce.
Nevertheless the industry needs to convince local communities about the benefits they will see from a well executed mining project. Ideally the fear of a mining project would be replaced by a desire for a mining project. Preferably your stakeholders should become your biggest promoters. Working to make individual mining projects less scary may eventually help sustain the entire industry.

What can the industry do?

We have all heard about the actions the industry is considering when working with local communities. Some of these actions might include:
  • Being transparent and cooperative through the entire development process.
  • Using best practices and not necessarily doing things the “cheapest” way.
  • Focusing on long life projects.
  • Helping communities with more local infrastructure improvements.
  • Promoting business entrepreneurship that will extend beyond the mine life.
  • Transferring of post-closure assets to local communities.
There are teams of smart people representing mining companies  working with the local communities. These sustainability teams will ultimately be the key players in making or breaking the sustainability of mining industry.  They will build and maintain the perception of the industry.
While geologists or engineers can develop new technology and operating practices, it will be the sustainability teams that will need to sell the concepts and build the community bridges.
The sustainability effort extends well beyond just developing new technical solutions. It also involves politics, socio-economics, personal relationships, global influences, hidden agendas. It can be a minefield to navigate.

Conclusion

As a first step, the mining industry needs to focus more on local stakeholders and communities. Remove the fear of a mining project and replace it with a desire for a mining project. Mining companies must avoid doing things in the least expensive ways. They must do things in ways that inspire confidence in the company and in the project.
The ultimate goal of sustainable mining will require changing the public’s attitude about mining. Perhaps this starts with the local grass roots communities rather than with global initiatives. As a speaker said at the recent Progressive Mine Forum in Toronto, the mining industry has lost trust with everyone. It is now up to the mining companies, ALL OF THEM, to re-establish it. Unfortunately just one bad apple can undo the positive work done by others.  The industry is not a monolith, so all you can do is at least make sure your own company inspires confidence in the way you are doing things.
As an aside, I have recently seen suggestions that discounted cashflow analysis (i.e. NPV analysis) and sustainable mining practices may be contradictory. There may be some truth to those comments, but I will leave that discussion for a future blog.  You can read that blog at this link.
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