Great careers often begin with simple wonders. “As a kid I was fascinated by volcanoes,” says David Copeland, director of project development at Hunter Dickinson and the recipient of this year’s A.O. Dufresne Award. “Growing up on the West Coast, I saw a lot of volcanoes and volcanic terrains,” he recalls, “and I thought, ‘I want to study volcanoes and geology.’”
Copeland studied economic geology at the University of British Columbia and apprenticed as a professional engineer. “In those days it was easy to get jobs in exploration,” he says. “I worked on drill rigs and in exploration camps, so I had quite a bit of experience by the time I finished school.” After graduating, he worked for International Nickel and later for Kennecott in the South Pacific region, including the Solomon Islands, New Guinea and throughout Australia.
During these times, a cadre of people went from project to project and Copeland was constantly being introduced to new things, expanding his experience beyond geology. “It taught me that these kinds of projects are multi-disciplined and multi-skilled,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what grade the deposit is if you’re not thinking about the process side or infrastructure. You need some perspective on those things early on.”
In 1986, BP-Selco’s technical services group concluded that, from a technical and scientific perspective, porphyry copper-gold deposits related to alkaline intrusions did not exist in the North American craton. Mark Rebagliati, currently executive vice-president, global exploration, Hunter Dickinson, staked the Mt. Milligan property for BP-Selco in 1983 and believed these deposits did exist. He approached Copeland with a proposal to develop Mt. Milligan.
Copeland was familiar with these alkaline systems from his work in the South Pacific and was convinced that Rebagliati was right about the area’s potential. Today, Mt. Milligan is set to become the first major metal mine to open in British Columbia in 15 years after the Kemess South Mine, a previous Copeland-Rebagliati success.
It was also the project around which Hunter Dickinson developed, Copeland says, and it set the tone for the company’s business approach. “We look at where people have encountered geological technical challenges and we ask ourselves: How can we solve this?” he explains. “How can we look at these challenges differently and turn them into something positive?”
Copeland adds that it goes further than just seeing an opportunity for corporate growth or solving geologic challenges. “A project has to be a catalyst for other things as well,” he says. “Projects are like the anchor store in a shopping development: they provide opportunity and infrastructure for a region. Mines don’t have to be large to benefit a region; even a small boutique gold mine can have a significant effect on a region and on a community. We started understanding and appreciating that philosophy long before buzzwords of sustainability and community social license came along.”
This approach also played a role in developing the Kemess project in central British Columbia, another project for which Copeland is recognized. “We realized early on that the key was going to be the infrastructure, upgrading access and providing power,” he says. “The question was, ‘what else could be done with this infrastructure for the region and communities?’
We saw that there were opportunities for fishery enhancement, wildlife protection, wilderness tourism, power for other projects, potential employment and stability for local First Nations communities, and skill training for residents in these remote regions that could be used elsewhere,” Copeland explains. “There were potential partnering opportunities with agencies and groups to ensure protection of natural resources, and sponsorship of long-term studies. All of these are issues and challenges that a mining project and its associated infrastructure can bring positive solutions to.”