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News Article

Social, Environmental Best Practices Enable Mine of The Future

By Cas Biekmann | Wed, 02/10/2021 - 13:03

On Wednesday, Feb. 10, experts discussed prevalent issues regarding how mines can improve their environmental, social and governance criteria and how they can utilize technologies to participate in a decarbonized society. “The mine of the future will have a fully integrated community and business environment, in which planning will occur beyond operation and toward closing, so the community can remain sustainable beyond the mine’s life, as well,” said Robert Schafer, President of the Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration (SME) during the second panel of Mexico Mining Forum.

This integration will become even more important in a context of global trends, including the energy transition and Industry 4.0. “This will have implications for local communities. Although most jobs will not necessarily disappear, we will need more skilled workers,” said Isabelle Ramdoo, Deputy Director of the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development (IGF). To avoid tension, companies need to manage the transition for local communities and help to foster opportunities to diversify away from the mining sector.

Aidan Davy, COO of the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), added that these changes alter the social contract between mining companies, communities and government. Governments traditionally cede their resources so mining companies can develop them and local communities hope to gain benefits in a more direct manner. If a changing industry alters that relationship, new approaches need to be found. “We do not have the answers to these challenging questions, yet. But we are working and getting closer,” he added.

Social issues, after all, are prevalent in the sector. “We have seen a significant number of disputes between mining companies and local communities,” said Davy. Most of these concentrate around decision-making and who owns the resources that are produced. To solve these tensions, the sector could adopt more inclusive decision-making processes. Good examples of harmonious cooperation between miners, communities and government already exist, where all three parties feel an appropriate degree of ownership and say in the decision-making process.

A global transition toward renewable energy is also forcing mining operations to adapt. After all, mining is essential in its role to produce the necessary materials for clean energy production. “Lithium is a major component of solar panels,” said Dolores Barrientos, Representative Officer in Mexico of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), adding that solar energy is a crucial puzzle piece for climate commitments in 126 countries, which contribute to almost 50 percent of global carbon emissions. Barrientos said UNEP focused on improving the sector’s capability to prevent disasters and generate less pollution. “We also promote the circular economy, related to eco-design, recycling and re-use in the mining process,” she said.

Even though mining is crucial in the clean energy transition, “this does not give mining companies a free pass to pollute,” Davy highlighted. As to whether mining operations themselves could make use of renewable energy to improve in this regard, he noted that this was very much dependent on the context and geography. He sees a lot of opportunity for solar in Sub-Saharan Africa, Chile and Peru, especially in the area of equipment where improvements can be made. “Mobile equipment offers a real area of opportunity, which in some cases represents 80 percent of a mine’s emissions,” he said, mentioning ICMM’s initiative for cleaner, safer vehicles in the sector.

Schafer noted that hydroelectric and geothermal energy can provide clean electricity for mining operations, as well as wind and solar. However, the intermittent nature of renewable energy, which cannot be generated around the clock, needs to be taken into account. “Hybrid sourcing will be the most likely direction for the industry,” he said. Tech, including flow batteries, can be used to provide electricity. Hydrogen is a developing market of interest for the mining community, which can provide a promising future opportunity. Ramdoo agreed by highlighting that both cost and technological readiness of such technologies need to be taken into account for each operation. One additional benefit of employing renewable off-grid energy is the opportunity to share it with communities. “This is an opportunity to give power to people,” she said, noting that providing stable and clean electricity can help the community shift away from dependency on mining alone, so people can generate their own jobs and participate in other industries.

Another important area to address for mining companies is the mine’s surrounding ecosystem. Barrientos explained that natural protected areas and mining operations often get entangled. “This is a frequent issue around the globe, as these two areas constantly overlap. Around 11 percent of Mexican territory is under protected status,” she said. The Sierra Gorda in Queretaro is an important example. “The Sierra represents 25 percent of global mercury emissions, with 200 mercury mines working there and around 1,500 families involved.” Mercury has a negative impact on health and the environment, so UNEP is developing a 5-year plan to give these communities alternative economic possibilities. Barrientos highlighted that families involved in mining often want to change their economic activity to tourism and agriculture, but this can only happen if they get support. Different levels of government can play a role in enabling these efforts. Mining has also been involved in a great deal of deforestation in Mexican territory, which along with water pollution created two main issues for mining companies to address.

“A great compromise is needed. Industries need materials to decarbonize but a balance is needed between mineral development and environmental protection,” Schafer said, adding that adapting new technologies will help miners decrease their footprint significantly.

Cas Biekmann Cas Biekmann Journalist and Industry Analyst