Keeping it clean: Natural Resources Canada and the legacy of sustainable mining
“The goal of this initiative was one that was very lofty, that mining leaves behind only clean water, rehabilitate landscapes and to help the ecosystems,” says Janice Zinck, Director of Green Mining innovation.
“It’s a stretch goal, but it was based on the fact that there are still concerns from the public and others in terms of the environmental performance of the industry but also recognising that the industry needed to be more viable in terms of innovation and the ability to respond to environmental and technical challenges.”
The Green Mining Initiative was created in May 2009 by Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), a governmental body which aims to strengthen the responsible development and use of Canada’s natural resources. NRCan specialises in the fields of energy, forests and minerals and metals to meet the country’s global commitments to sustainable development of natural resources.
There’s also a business and economic case to be explored with the Green Mining Initative, something that Zinck admits is one other aspect of the GMI.
“A lot of the practices or best practices and what we call green mining technologies have cost savings and cost advantages when you apply them and look at energy efficiency,” says Zinck.
“Energy is one of the biggest costs for any mining operations and at the same time of reducing energy consumption you’re reducing environmental impact particularly greenhouse gas emissions and generally energy consumption as a whole.”
The GMI is led through NRCan but is a multi-stakeholder initiative in that it has an external body that acts as an advisory council. This council is made up of industry representatives from the Canadian mining industry, consultants, academics and other various government officials.
This collaborative effort allows oversight on the projects that are delivered through the initiative as well as ensuring that all vested interests are at the table when these projects are developed and technologies rolled out.
Implementing change in an industry that has been operating for decades will bring with it problems and challenges. Regulatory challenges, cost challenges, but Zinck believes that one huge challenge is proof of concept.
“We often talk about the industry being risk adverse but that is only one part of it, an adoption of a new technology is not necessarily always going to be due to risk. And risk is not always coming from those who are the adopters. There are regulatory risk and challenges that need to be overcome,” says Zinck
“If you take a new technology that’s green and hasn’t been adopted before, there’s the issue of being first. Realistically, no one wants to be the first adopter of a new technology because if you are then you’re the one who has to go through the whole proof, whether it will respond and deliver what’s expected of it in terms of environmental performance.”
As for regulatory challenges, Canada has a strong and stringent environmental regulatory process that controls and often dictates the way in which new technologies and new processes are both developed and implemented.
One particular challenge that has presented itself to the GMI has been reacting, responding and in some ways staying ahead of what Zinck describes as the “innovation curve.”
“There is always the challenge in moving technologies along the innovation curve. From early stage concepts or at the R&D stage to actually implementing them, these things could make perfect sense at those early stages and then moving them through to demonstration and adoption is one of the major challenges we’ve had to overcome,” says Zinck.
Challenges and success are two sides to the same coin. In the seven years since the GMI was put in place, the initiative has seen a number of considerable successes and achievements.
Collaboration between those various vested interests has been crucial in the development of the initiative, and Zanick recognises this as one of the major successes.
“It has allowed us to recognise that there needs to be greater collaboration amongst the various stakeholders and that certainly been happening more now and is one of the stronger areas of success.”
Naturally, the major successes for the GMI have been the technologies developed to progress and further this drive and vision of a cleaner legacy.
“There have been technologies that have looked at the reduction of energy in both underground mining ventilation and comminution. There have been technologies, or applications that have taken barren mining land and utilised waste from other industry such as residual organic waste or municipal waste on the tailings in order to produce a secondary land use - an energy source for production of bio energy,”
“We’re talking about taking a barren, sterile operation which in some cases is considered a liability and turning it into a profitable secondary land use.”
In the current mining climate, cost reduction is crucial. With so many company’s coming to terms with the impact of a declining market, how does this impact GMI? – not at all, as green mining and cost reduction go hand in hand.
“We are always looking at things to make sure that we have that offer of dual benefit of environmental reduction but also some kind of cost competitive advantage. It definitely enters into it in more of a positive way,” says Zinck.
“Green mining is not simply about the environmental side, it’s a best practice when you can look at a process that’s going to reduce impacts for environment as well as an economic advantage, the two of them are very streamlined together.”
The Green Mining Initiative is Canada’s answer to a greener mining industry, but they are not alone. Other countries are upping their efforts to create a more sustainable industry, Tekes, in Finland for example has its own Green Mining programme to make Finland a global leader in the sustainable mineral industry by 2020.
Zinck believes that countries can learn from Canada and vice versa, as new entrants into the green mining market can only be good for the future of the industry, specifically standardisation of best practices.
“I think there certainly could be an inventory of best practices and identification/certification in some ways of performance technologies,” says Zinck.
“As more of the industry becomes more global, there are less players and costs become the bottom line. It’s becoming more and more challenging to make profits so standardisation of best practices could really minimise the number of uncertainties in the market.”
Working collaboratively across the globe is crucial, Zinck believes, to creating that vision of a sustainable mining industry.
“Look at best practices globally, not only in Canada, that we can share together. In South Africa, Australia and Finland. They have their own best practices and collectively we can pull together. We can move towards identification of best practice globally,”
“We try to look for opportunities to have that kind of global presence and recognising that as the industry is becoming a fully global industry – we can’t be working on these green and sustainable initiatives in isolation.”
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Low carbon world needs $1.7trn in mining investment
According to a new report from consultancy Wood Mackenzie, mining companies need to invest nearly $1.7trn in the next 15 years to help supply enough copper, cobalt, nickel and other metals needed for the shift to a low carbon world.
Cutting carbon emissions
The United States, Britain, Japan, Canada and others raised their targets on cutting carbon emissions to halt global warming at a summit in April hosted by US President Joe Biden.
Meeting those targets will need large-scale deployment of electric vehicles, storage for power generated from renewables and electricity transmission, all of which require industrial materials, such as lightweight aluminium and metals used in batteries such as cobalt and lithium.
Wood Mackenzie analyst Julian Kettle calculated miners needed to invest about $1.7trn during the next 15 years to “deliver a two-degree pathway - where the rise in global temperatures since pre-industrial times is limited to 2°C”.
“At an industry level, there seems to be reticence around investing sufficient capital to develop future supply at the pace and scale demanded by the energy transition (ET),” he said.
Mining firms are wary of making heavy investments after their experience of the last decade when they invested in new capacity just as demand peaked, leading to a collapse in prices and revenues. They also need to please investors, who are unlikely to want to see dividends diverted to capital spending.
Rising demands of investors related environment, social and governance (ESG) issues further add to the challenge.
Australia, Canada and Western Europe carry a low ESG risk but some of the best resources are in high-risk areas, such as Democratic Republic of Congo, which sits on about half the world’s cobalt reserves according to the U.S. Geological Survey. “Given the need to meet tough decarbonisation and ESG targets, Western governments, lenders, investors and consumers will need to get comfortable operating in jurisdictions where ESG issues are more complex,” Kettle said.
Kettle said government support was needed to help miners comply with ESG issues to ensure production from high-risk areas was conducted in an acceptable way to consumers.
“Then, and only then, will the West be able to secure sufficient volumes of the raw materials needed to pursue the energy transition in the timescales envisaged.”