Can Mining Ever Be Sustainable?
A new paper from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), “MMSD+10: Reflecting on a decade,” reports on the mining sector’s sustainability progress over the past 10 years. In the report, IIED researcher Abbi Buxton reviews the implementation of the 2002 recommendations by the industry-sponsored Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development (MMSD) initiative.
The MMSD process led to the adoption by the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) of its Sustainable Development Framework, which consists of 10 principles:
- Ethical business practices and sound corporate governance
- Integration of sustainable development considerations into corporate decision-making processes
- Advocacy for human rights and respect for cultures and values
- Adoption of sound risk management practices
- Continuous improvement in health and safety performance
- Continuous improvement in environmental performance
- Conservation of biodiversity and sound land-use planning
- Responsible life-cycle management of products from creation to disposal
- Contribution to the development of communities in which companies operate
- Practice of transparent communication and engagement with stakeholders.
All members of the ICMM are required to implement this framework. The council’s members include AngloAmerican, Areva, Barrick, BHP Billiton, Freeport-McMoran, Goldcorp, Hydro, Inmet Mining, JX Nippon, Mitsubishi Materials, Rio Tinto, Teck and Vale. The membership covers 800,000 people at over 800 mining sites in 62 countries.
Buxton says that the intervening years since the MMSD initiative began have seen an increase in the understanding of what sustainable development means for mining, including the establishment of new standards and best practices. However, she cautions, “Despite good intentions at the strategy level and examples of good practice, the complexity of situations at the mine site means implementation across the sector is highly variable.” Verification and reporting mechanisms often fall short and fail to translate into “progress on the ground.”
Implementation is further complicated by the rise of competitors from emerging economies such as China, Brazil and India; increasing pressures to nationalize mineral resources in some countries; and difficulties operating in “conflict regions and fragile states.”
Sustainable Mining: An Oxymoron?
Trying to define and implement sustainability in the resource-extraction sector seems inherently difficult. Isn’t the phrase “sustainable mining” an oxymoron? How can the word “sustainable” be used when addressing an industry defined by the extraction of limited natural resources?
When asked if large-scale mining could ever be called “sustainable,” Stephen D’Esposito, president of the environmental organization Resolve, replied:
“Society needs and wants minerals and materials that are sourced from the Earth. The challenge that we have is to define responsibly sourced minerals and material and to create incentives for mining projects that can contribute to sustainable development. The fact is that with mining, you are depleting a resource. To the extent it stays in the economy via recycling, that’s advantageous. So long as the economy needs metals, then it is really a question of how society meets its mining and mineral needs more responsibly.”
D’Esposito’s viewpoint is borne out by Vasudevan Rajaram and colleagues in their 2005 book Sustainable Mining Practices — a Global Perspective. Rajaram admitted, at first blush, that “it seems that mining and ‘sustainable development’ are not compatible.” Mining depends on the extraction and employment of finite resources. However, he pointed out, “There is the simplistic belief that, somehow, one can create a future in which mining … will be unnecessary” and that “extracting minerals from the ground at a rate greater than can be replaced by geological processes violates the principles of sustainable development.”
Arguing for a more reasonable approach, Rajaram wrote:
It is true that no single mine can last forever, but this is really not relevant. This is because sustainability encompasses many more values than the continuing availability of the resource being developed. Indeed, it is the very fact that mineral development will end some day that makes the integration of those other sustainability considerations into the mining process highly appropriate.
Rajaram offers a definition of sustainable mining, proposing that “mining is sustainable when it is conducted in a manner that balances economic, environmental and social considerations, often referred to as the ‘triple bottom line.’ Practices that promote this balance, he asserts, are “sustainable mining practices.”
David Laurence, professor of mining engineering at Australia’s University of New South Wales, in a paper published in the Journal of Cleaner Production (“Establishing a sustainable mining operation: an overview,” Jan.-Feb. 2011), acknowledged that “there is limited guidance for mine operators to put sustainability frameworks and theory into action on the ground.”
However, Laurence said, researchers have been arguing since the early 1990s that mining operations are not incompatible with environmental goals. He suggested, for example, that sustainable mining is feasible “if the rate of use of minerals does not exceed the capacity to find new sources, acceptable substitutes or recycle.” Good management practices permit miners to “use the land with care” and “can achieve sustainable development by embracing social, environmental and economic concerns.”
In his study, Laurence argued that operators can improve the sustainability of their mine sites by implementing practices in five key areas. Three of these areas are components of the conventional “triple bottom line,” i.e., economic performance, environmental performance and community benefit. In a mining context, though, he felt that two other components need to enter into the picture:
- Safety, which is a critical concern in mining, where operations have high potential for injuries and fatalities
- Extraction practices of the mineral itself.
The second criterion, according to Laurence, deserves more attention than it usually gets. Most analyses of the sustainability of mining focus at the macro level, considering the large-scale economics, the limits of natural resources and concerns over depletion. But what about the micro level, i.e., the level of the individual site? A natural store of minerals is a common good, and a country’s citizens have an inherent interest in its sustainable exploitation. So whether a mine is managed sustainably or wastefully has a direct impact on the “community” leg of the triple bottom line.
Laurence pointed out:
Too often, an ore body or coal seam is mined without any regard for the long term, resulting in a reduced mine life. In addition, government regulators rarely scrutinize how companies mine a particular deposit, usually focusing only on the safety and environmental aspects. The reasons may be political, given that the community has more of an interest in these aspects, or simply the lack of technical expertise in government.
Thus, a truly sustainable mining regime calls for resource efficiency as an essential element. For example, “Mining engineers, geologists and metallurgists” should collaborate “to optimize resource extraction.” Rather than just focus on extracting the high-grade materials, a more sustainable approach will consider mining lower grades, as well, “which will extend the mine life and thus stakeholder benefits, without compromising the revenue stream.”
If mining operators practice sustainable development in all of these dimensions, Laurence asserted, “the mine life will be optimized, the community benefits maximized and the industry itself will have wider community acceptance.”