Mining industry experts routinely bandy around terminology that, to average citizens and even investors, makes little sense. One of the current terms of interest is ‘sustainable mining’. To most observers, the very term suggests something that will be around indefinitely. However, since mining depletes non-renewable resources, can it truly be sustainable?
What Does “Sustainable” Actually Mean?
There are a couple of ways to look at explaining sustainable mining. The term itself is a little ambiguous, as businesses and community members may look at the term from entirely different perspectives. A mining company may look at the term from an economic standpoint. In other words, how long can current mining strategies be economically sustainable?
Outside observers, on the other hand, may take the term much more literally. Their point of view revolves around the fact that any specific mine has, for all intents and purposes, a limited lifespan. A mine’s usefulness is determined by the ability of the mining company to extract minerals profitably, which depends entirely on the percentage of the mineral in the ore.
There is, however, another form of sustainability—environmental sustainability. Because mining operations affect other aspects of the environment in addition to the mine itself, environmental sustainability is becoming just as important as economic sustainability. Indeed, in some respects, the relationship between the two is inextricably intertwined.
Who Benefits or Suffers from Mining Operations?
“There’s a huge amount of issues with human rights and labor laws,” said Peter Bryant, a senior fellow at Kellogg Innovation Network. “Mining companies don’t envisage what their legacies are, and it’s something for the industry to think about.”
In other words, there are more people involved in mining than stockholders. Each of them is impacted in some way by mining operations.
“Mines generate huge revenues, but communities who live around them are poor and don’t see the benefits. That creates a cycle of conflicts,” said Keith Slack of Oxfam America.
Industry observers can easily conclude the relationships between mining companies, shareholders, and area residents are incredibly complex. While mines do, in fact, provide jobs for some local residents, do the benefits of those jobs offset the environmental impacts of those operations?
Can Mining Operations be Both Economically and Environmentally Sustainable?
“Mining can become more environmentally sustainable by developing and integrating practices that reduce the environmental impact of mining operations,” said Mining Facts. “These practices include measures such as reducing water and energy consumption, minimizing land disturbance and waste production, preventing soil, water, and air pollution at mine sites, and conducting successful mine closure and reclamation activities.”
However, how will those measures impact economic sustainability? On the surface, it would appear those steps would reduce net profits, but there are arguments suggesting the reverse is true. Canadian mining companies have one of the highest water recycling rates among the industrial sectors, and between 1996 and 2005 reduced its total water intake by 33 percent while the value of production increased nearly 50 percent.
In other words, there are steps mining organizations can take that will serve to minimize environmental concerns while, at the same time, enhance profitability.
How Long can Mining Continue before Resources are Exhausted?
According to many experts, the world’s supply of resources is far from depleted, and that potential technological advances further stretch the viability of mining.
Of course, the issue of economic and environmental sustainability is complex and will require significant analysis by regulatory, environmental, and industry experts to find a balance acceptable to all stakeholders.
Information sourced from The Guardian, Mining Facts, and Elko Daily.