Robert Schafer
View from the Top

Public Perception as a Driver of Change in the Industry

By Cas Biekmann | Wed, 02/03/2021 - 18:24

"Don't miss Robert Schafer's participation as a speaker at Mexico Mining Forum 2021 on February 10-11. You can find the program and registration here."

Q: What initiatives can be implemented to improve the perception of mining among the general public?

A: I agree that mining has a public relations challenge. Every day a person uses products stemming from mining but the connection between mining and that end product gets lost somewhere along the way. Cellphones and computers feature a very high number of mineable products and the machines that produce them as well. As an industry, we in the mining sector have not done a very good job of communicating what mining does for society. Perhaps this is because mining has historically been a very competitive business and one in which all players wanted to protect what they thought were top secrets within their organizations and at their operations. In the past 30 years, we have been learning that mining must to become part of the community, rather than just being a hole in the ground on the outskirts of a town. The people working in mining operations are part of these communities and what looks like a hard to access or even dangerous area is in reality a productive operational site. Today, communication has improved and social media has allowed us to talk directly to more people. If we could deliver information on a weekly basis, communities would have a much better idea of what goes on in mines. Communication is, therefore, the biggest issue to tackle, becoming part of the community follows closely after.

Q: How could mining companies address waste management and water use?

A: Tailings storage and waste management are high-profile news items because of the disasters that occurred, particularly in Brazil and Canada over the past five years. These are technologically developed countries, so companies and universities in these countries are all addressing these topics. As a result, we will see new best practices in these areas. Every mining location is unique, so technology needs to be adapted to fit the situation the local site. Applying best practices allows for improvement and ensures companies do not follow a wrong recipe for a particular area. Mining is heading toward the “ideal mine,” in which there is no waste and every component of the rock can find its way into some commercial product. This would be the most efficient and green practice we could develop. Water is another issue, especially in rural areas. Many people in these areas are subsistence farmers who fear that a mine would disrupt and pollute their water supply. We need to do a lot more work to develop and understand the water budget of a region, showing how we can coexist and use the water fairly and without disruption of the current water needs.

Q: Why did SME seek admission to the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) and why is its membership important for the Society?

A: The largest, most responsible mining companies in the world are members of the ICMM. Important decision-makers and major producers are part of it and attend meetings. If SME or other key technical mining organizations are not part of that conversation, a link is lost and decision-makers may not have access to the best information which could lead to less-than-optimal decisions. Attending these meetings provides SME with access to the best information and allows you to help steer the discussion in the right direction. This is crucial when policy is on the table. It is, therefore, important for SME to have joined ICMM: to have a seat at the table and to make its resources available to the organization.

Q: With the USMCA opening new trade avenues, how could Mexico, Canada and the US cooperate to strengthen regional development through mining?

A: Naturally, countries are friendly competitors but they still collaborate and strive for everyone’s well-being. The possibilities of what we can do jointly includes the sharing of technology and innovation, particularly sourcing funding and fostering the sharing of information and communication. We can create alliances not just among governments but between our mining corporations as well. Sharing expertise cross-border is important. Even though companies often employ locals, expatriates are sometimes needed to help disseminate knowledge and illustrate new methods. In regard to Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) criteria, guidelines can be developed to address common challenges. We can also learn from each other. An example is how to communicate with and educate rural communities unfamiliar with mining and communicate the benefits to them.

Q: Now that the US government is committing to boosting an energy transition, what could be the role of mining in this shift toward green energy?

A: There are two keywords that relate to mining in the transition to a decarbonized, green society: responsible and sustainable. Responsible refers mainly to activities we do today, meaning that industry activities should not create more harm and will leave everything at least as good, or better than it was before we got there. Sustainable means we also consider future generations. Mining is taking this into account and making progressive steps in this regard. To create the transition to an environmentally friendly and sustainable society, we need to reformat some of the ways we live. Our homes, vehicles and lifestyles will need to change ones that are more recyclable, cleaner and energy efficient. Mining is the bedrock of sustainability, so for all of these transitions we need to deploy best practices in production, processing and waste management, as well as in ESG areas. By combining these best practices in technical and people-oriented areas, mining should be the leader toward a greener society rather than a follower.

Q: How can the mining industry boost education and attract a diverse workforce in this process?

A: We need to develop some type of academic integration at the university level so that a person studying to become a civil or a chemical engineer can also apply those learnings and skills to mining.  For instance, at the University of Arizona, an institute was formed to integrate all the engineering departments together with their law school and economics faculty into an all-encompassing program. Here, students are shown the full breadth of how their studies can be applied. More universities could take this approach, while companies that provide scholarships could communicate this approach to further their support to universities.

Regarding gender, inclusion and diversity in the mining industry, I like to stress inclusion before diversity. Diversity is an important factor, but if everyone feels included and welcomed regardless of sexual orientation, age or origin then this automatically generates diversity. It is not just important to foster inclusion but to create equity among those who are included so that everyone receives the same benefits. Industries perceived to be “rough and tumble” like mining or construction were formerly often thought in terms of a guy with a hard hat on and a cigar in his mouth, but we recognize now that a person can be a great miner regardless of physical attributes and interests. People should also realize and be exposed to the many disciplines that intersect with mining. Mining careers are more than hard sciences, engineering and mathematics. As you know, there is much focus in today’s mining companies on the environmental sciences, human resources, community planning and historic anthropology. These areas are crucial for mining operations as well. In this regard, a person can move in many career directions and find a satisfying career in mining.

The Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration (SME) is a technical association committed to the mining, mineral and underground construction industries. It promotes best practices in the industry and increases critical knowledge and collaboration among its members and industry participants.

Cas Biekmann Cas Biekmann Journalist and Industry Analyst