March/April 2007

Voices from Industry

Sustainable mining for a growing world

By D. Rodier

We are certainly living in interesting times! One of the strong current trends is the new traction for sustainability, thanks in some measure to Al Gore and his push for awareness on climate change, the better understanding of society’s impact on the global environment, and the new focus of mainstream politicians on the topic. The good news is that this new emphasis makes imminent sense. It is not about doing good or tree hugging, but about improved economics with lower costs and reduced risks, with the added bonus of leaving a more sustainable future to our grandchildren.

After 30 plus years in non-ferrous operations (copper and zinc), I was given the opportunity to lead my corporation in its sustainability activites, something that I frankly didn’t think, at the time, would lead to anything. But with understanding comes commitment and excitement. I have spent the last nine years learning about sustainable development, measuring our impacts, and lending a hand to its promotion internally at my original employer (Noranda Inc.), externally in our industry through the Global Mining Initiative, the International Council for Mining and Metals (ICMM), and the Mining Association of Canada (MAC), and currently with Hatch engineering consultants. At Hatch, the sustainable development activity breaks into two groupings; intergated risk management and design for sustainability.

Let’s concentrate on two hot topical issues, namely energy and climate change, and population growth and urbanization.

Energy and climate change

There is a growing consensus that climate change is happening. There is also no denying that carbon dioxide (CO2) is increasing in the atmosphere. Our fundamental problem is that the half life of CO2 is over 200 years so that the current increase will be with us for several generations, even if we were to cut our emissions immediately. A major reduction will not happen overnight and the cost of energy will continually increase. This gives us two immediate priorities - preparing for a carbon-constrained future and adapting to the forecast impacts of climate change. Simultaneously, we must find ways to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases so that the overall CO2 increase can be stemmed.

Making a concerted effort on energy conservation in all areas will achieve both lower emissions and energy cost reductions. This needs to be complemented by a prolonged progam to develop renewable, nonemitting energy supplies and carbon sequestration technologies.

At Hatch, we have been promoting the use of design to improve life cycle operating costs for new plants, with a focus on lowering the ecological footprint of processes and plants, by reducing energy and water consumption, emissions, and improving metal recoveries. Reduced operating costs, for energy and water, is “a gift that keeps on giving” throughout the life of the plant.

In every conservation effort, we start with the easily identified low-hanging fruit, followed by organizational change in the business and processing practices, and then finally instituting fundamental changes in the design and technology of processes.

The overiding thought that we promote is that challenges, when properly understood, can provide opportunities. Our evolving design approach is to start with a charrette-type discussion with our clients to effectively position the project to be more competitive for its useful life. Using the client’s sustainability objectives, the key steps are: identify the strategic risks and opportunities; generate a roster of alternative processes and design alternatives; rank the alternatives on potential risks against the client’s sustainability objectives; and subsequently evaluate them on technical feasability and costs.

The most appropriate time to do this, is at the conceptual phase. Success in using this approach will provide the client with an operation that will be cost competitive for its normal capital life, often without increasing capital cost over a conventional design.

Population growth and urbanization

The most critical factor facing society today is population growth. If we refer to current statistics, one billion people of our six billion total do not have access to safe water. An additional 1.5 billion have no sewage treatment. Both factors contribute to serious health issues. An equal number of the population have access to only the most rudimentary energy source, biofuels, which contribute to local deforestration and domestic internal air pollution. This situation will be exacerbated by the population increase to nine billion between 2030 and 2050.

Most of the increase will be in urban areas where expectations for improved living standards attract the influx. This will raise the need for all commodities, to enable society to supply the basic needs for housing, transportation, and utilities - a good story for our industry. The urban population density can lead to opportunities for efficiencies in providing utilities with such examples as combined heat and power and high-rise housing, which lowers the surface footprint per capita.

The downside of urbanization is the concentration of the negative effects on the local biosphere. Recently, expanded cities in China and Latin America demonstrate the impacts on air quality, and the lack of adequate water, sewage, and energy infrastructure.

Secure metal supply will be essential to making the new mega cities more inhabitable. Metals also have the advantage of being durable and recyclable, resulting in returning to their original properties. If we continue on the right path, our industry will continue to be an essential cog in the development of a better life for society.

David Rodier is a senior consultant at Hatch Associates.

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