MINING|The science of addressing climate change
Climate change is exacerbating many of the risks that mines already face in their daily operations and needs to be factored into planning decisions right from the pre-feasibility stage of projects.
Water management, for example, is becoming more complex as rainfall patterns in many areas start to change in frequency and intensity, according to Philippa Burmeister, principal scientist at SRK Consulting. “This affects mines’ management of their surface water and groundwater resources, as well as biodiversity and wetland management,” she explains.
“Climate change has implications for infrastructure design, as it raises the risk of flooding, water insecurity, and environmental damage.”
PHILIPPA BURMEISTER, PRINCIPAL SCIENTIST, SRK CONSULTING
As an example, she highlighted the importance of water balance as a key aspect of tailings dam design. Here, historical rainfall data is a crucial part of the information necessary to ensure dams’ safe operation in the long term. “As rainfall variability and intensity change, the historical data becomes less reliable in guiding design parameters,” she says. “Operations generally are more likely to be disrupted due to severe weather events like floods or droughts. For instance, heavier storm events may increase water volumes seeping into mine workings, requiring more pumping capacity.”
Ashleigh Maritz, senior environmental scientist at SRK Consulting, notes that climate change is also likely to affect the livelihood resilience of mining communities. “As temperatures and rainfall patterns change, traditional forms of livelihood could be threatened, making communities more reliant on the mines for income and corporate social investment.”
“The way that a mine engages with their stakeholders and supports communities is therefore critical, as it is vital to maintaining its social licence to operate,” adds Maritz.
She pointed out that an important outcome of climate change is likely to be a scarcity of precious resources like water – which could set mines in direct competition with local communities. Rising average temperatures in some regions may also lead to the geographic spread of communicable diseases like malaria – which may affect employees and surrounding communities.
Impacts on public infrastructure will also have a knock-on effect on mines. More frequent flooding or drought will change municipalities’ planning and investment in water supply or stormwater facilities. This may disadvantage the mines or affect mines’ social license to operate.
“This will demand not just a technical solution but careful relationship building so that platforms are created for collaborative and long-term answers with buy-in from all stakeholders,” Maritz attests.
Risk and compliance
Burmeister adds that mining clients are increasingly cognisant of climate change risk. Industry standards are evolving – even in advance of national standards or requirements.
“With financial institutions also seeing the potential risks to their investments posed by climate change, they are increasingly stipulating that climate change issues are addressed in planning studies for mining projects.”Philippa Burmeister, principal scientist at SRK Consulting
To effectively address the varied risks that accompany climate change, she emphasised that solutions need to be integrated. In other words, technical input must be coordinated across a range of professional disciplines. It is crucial that climate change impacts be ‘mainstreamed’ into various technical disciplines if it is to be effectively addressed.
“Our philosophy at SRK is that climate change must be considered by all disciplines in the project team,” she said. “This includes expertise in various facets of engineering, as well as in the natural and social sciences.”
SRK uses a range of quantitative and qualitative methods to investigate clients’ exposure to climate change risk. These include measuring the project’s greenhouse gas emissions as part of its environmental impact assessment and applying climate change models to identify specific project risks posed by predicted changes in climatic conditions.
Innovating for sustainability
“By integrating SRK’s professional input, we ensure not only that clients are compliant with regulations, but that the many and varied risks of climate change are addressed in their projects,” she says. “This makes them more sustainable and robust in the longer term.”
Maritz noted that the science of climate change modelling is relatively young, leading the company to take an adaptive and dynamic approach – while leveraging off partnerships to develop and apply the power of predictive modelling.
“This assists us in pioneering strategies and tools to manage climate change risks, from initial mine design and operational technical inputs through to social transitioning and mine closure,” she shares. “While monitoring is being undertaken extensively at most mine sites, the interpretation of the data is critical to identifying trends that could prevent undesirable events.”
Digital and data
A key concern for SRK has been the development of better data processing and analysis capacity for the considerable mine data that is already available. This helps guide decision-making around climate change and the risks it poses.
“SRK recently established a dedicated data services unit that works closely with the climate change team to leverage and evolve the latest digital technologies,” she says. “For instance, as part of an innovation project, the team is developing an interactive mining map of South Africa; this provides a coordinated source of geo-located data on various aspects and stages of mining.”
SRK is also looking at developing site-specific climate change-related rainfall models for its mining clients, to better inform their project and operational planning. To support its ongoing innovation efforts, the company holds an annual innovation conference that fosters collaboration between specialists and opens doors to valuable applications.View more
Small operational changes can reap great savings
Amid national energy constraints and a mining sector set to contract, the opportunity exists for South Africa’s mining sector to continue exploring cost-saving measures with improved energy efficiency. With mine production in the country has plummeted in April and May due to lockdown restrictions and a near-total industry shutdown, boosted efforts to save energy and costs can improve the sustainability of this sector, which accounts for 8% of the country’s GDP.
New challenges for South Africa
The General Manager of Energy Efficiency & Corporate Communications for the South African National Energy Development Institute (SANEDI) explained that there are new challenges that the country is facing.
Addressing the ways energy is used in the mining sector can lead to huge financial and environmental savings for mine operations and for South Africa’s national grid.
“Looking at the crossroads of mining and energy, and making some simple changes to operations, means that we can achieve a better economic return on our precious mineral and energy resources,” said Bredenkamp.
Although most mines already have initiatives in place, newer technology and energy-saving techniques offer opportunities for improvement so desperately needed as mine productivity strives to recover.
The decision by President Ramaphosa last year to combine the Department of Energy and the Department of Mineral Resources amplifies the critical importance and synergy between these drivers of the economy. The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) has created a platform for the two industries to work together.
Bredenkamp explained that a recent case study by SANEDI on the 12L Tax Incentive showed how much energy efficiency can be gained from changes in mining operations.
“The 12L Tax incentive provides an allowance for businesses to implement energy efficiency savings. The savings allow for a tax deduction of 95c/kWh saved on energy consumption for a consecutive 12-month period,” Bredenkamp said.
Huge savings from simple changes
SANEDI undertook a case study with a large iron ore open-pit mining operation to establish what could be done to improve the mine’s energy efficiency. The study centred on the heavy mine-owned haul trucks, famous for being “gas guzzlers”. The mine’s trucks consumed a combined total of approximately 73 million litres of diesel during the baseline period.
To improve efficiency, the mine increased the amount of material transported by the haul truck fleets in each cycle, resulting in energy savings due to fewer cycles, achieving the same quantum of tonnes moved. The case study used a calibrated simulation model to assess the savings and found that, over two years, the haul trucks yielded a combined fuel savings of 21,685,430 kWh equivalent energy.
Bredenkamp commented that changing the hauled load would be a simple technical challenge to overcome and it can achieve substantial savings.
“The potential for even greater energy savings lies in every mine in South Africa, and a deeper look into how these mines operate holds huge implications for our economy,” Bredenkamp commented
No excuses for damaging the environment
While the construction industry remains in the grips of a long-lasting downturn, worsened by Covid-19 in recent months, there remains no excuse for construction contractors or building material suppliers to excavate sand and aggregates illegally.
Surface mining industry association, ASPASA, has asked the public to be vigilant and to report suspicious excavation of sand and stone that is either being sold or used for construction purposes. Damage caused to land in this manner can render it unusable for future generations and may lead to erosion or contamination of waterways or other surrounding areas
ASPASA director, Nico Pienaar, emphasised that even while the economy is strained, it is not an excuse for the construction industry to neglect their responsibility towards the environment.
“While the economic outlook for the industry is severely strained at present, there is no excuse for environmental negligence and adds that court rulings against directors of mining companies found to be responsible for polluting the environment in recent years should act as a warning to others to get their environmental-affairs in order,” said Pienaar.
In certain instances, individuals and directors of companies have been found guilty of damaging the environment and faced substantial fines and in some instances prison sentences. The same applies to public sector employees, municipalities and state-owned enterprises who are not above the law.
Pienaar explained that ASPASA serves on numerous environmental boards and is an influential member of the Mineral Council of South Africa (MCSA). ASPASA has also enjoyed a working relationship with the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy.
Pienaar added that emphasised that environmental damage has been taken very seriously and they continue to work with the MCSA, SA Police Services, Green Scorpions along with other government departments to identify transgressors.
“Needless to say, we will not hesitate to escalate any violations through these authorities in addition to reporting such incidents to the South African Police Services,” Pienaar said.
Pienaar further added that it is their goal to route reckless damage to the environment. He explained that this process began more than twenty years ago when they required members to comply with environmental legislation and internationally accepted environmental standards.
“As a result, our members are audited every 18-months and will lose their membership if they do not rectify any transgressions within a stipulated time period should transgressions occur,” Pienaar explained.
He concluded that sand and aggregates should only ever be purchased from legal suppliers and encourages would-be customers to look out for ASPASA accreditation suppliers to rest-assured that they are dealing with an environmentally conscious company in future.View more
Has ESG become the new normal for miners and investment?
The expectations and priorities of a modern-day investor in the mining sector have significantly changed in line with global demand for more responsible and sustainable extraction of mineral resources. Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) standards have firmly established itself across the investment community.
ESG standards are a must-have for investment
Financial evidence suggests that the ability of a mining business to successfully manage environmental, social and governance risks is directly linked to greater return on investment in the long term. Investor perception has moved away from regarding ESG as a desirable but non-essential component to a “must-have” for de-risking any investment decisions.
The industry has evolved in line with this demand and adopted a set of initiatives identifying the main ESG performance standards along with a variety of self-assessment tools to direct the implementation process.
Mining principles evolved to meet these standards
A prime example is the mining principles initiative recently launched by the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM). The members of ICMM, which include some of the world’s biggest mining companies, don’t get to choose to which assets these principles apply. Covering 38 areas, including biodiversity, gender, human rights due diligence, labour rights, local content, mine closure, pollution, resettlement and waste, they apply to more than 650 of ICMM members’ assets in over 50 countries. Their implementation by member companies — which account for about 30% of global production of major commodities such as iron ore, copper and gold — will drive performance improvements at scale. The initiative also features the standards related to the disclosure of the site-level validation of progress associated with the ESG issues listed above.
Even though the requirements and implementations guidelines greatly vary between different initiatives, there is clearly a global focus on enhancing ESG performance across the sector. It is important to note that the majority of ESG initiatives out there all point towards a universal need to meet the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations. This link is translated through the ability of a mining company to channel their impact investment and contribute to government revenues that support socio-economic transformation.
ESG investment leads to long-term value
As the access to capital presents an increasing challenging for the extractives sectors, competition for investment will force mining companies to move beyond compliance and to demonstrate the ability to meet ESG standards at an operational level. For example, less than 30% of precious metals projects are currently delivered on time, with the primary reason for delay being social opposition. Furthermore, companies adhering to the high levels of ESG performance are significantly more likely to generate long-term value and are less susceptible to stock price volatility.
The development of ESG standards and widespread engagement of the investment community represents a huge opportunity for an increase in impact investment, and an improvement in the responsible mining practices across the globe. However, if this is to become the “new normal”, we need to see an acceleration of the uptake and implementation of ESG standards, initiatives and best practices.View more