The big issues in mining - Living with Minerals

Materials World magazine
1 Jan 2015

At the recent Living With Minerals conference in London, four senior extractive industry figures shared their views on the current state of the industry. James Perkins chose the best bits. 

To start the discussion, host Justin Webb asked the panel what ‘keeps them up at night’, and the skills shortage was a prominent issue.

Corin Taylor, Senior Advisor at UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG):
We do have an ageing workforce, there are a lot of graduates coming on stream but there is also an issue finding people with 10–15 years of experience. For onshore, though, we are still a small industry. We have been going for many decades but are currently in the exploration stage, particularly for shale. If that is successful, you will expect to see a big expansion in the industry, and that is where the skills challenge could hit us in a few years’ time.

Richard Hunt, Head of Planning, York Potash Limited:
Industry is relying on a lot of people who are approaching the end of their careers in mineral planning. Part of the reason that skills gap exists is because of a hiatus in some of the planning courses being run by the educational establishments. If you have gaps in continuity of support for specific industries, you can lose that expertise. It is up to organisations to shadow those individuals with that long-term knowledge and expertise to ensure it is being passed on to future generations.

For the proponents of two major UK mining projects, the Wolf Minerals tungsten mine and the York Potash project Special Protection Areas
(SPAs) have proved frustrating.

John Cowley, Director at Mineral and Resource Planning Associates, and an advisor to Wolf Minerals’ Drakelands tungsten mine at Hemerdon:
There is a certain SPA for birds in the UK that affects one of the internationally important minerals, but the birds – all three species that are the reason that it is protected – make up less than 0.001% of the biogeographic population, so they are on the fringe. They are interesting for twitchers and they are interesting for people – I like to see them – but they do not relate to conservation. Geoconservation should be in the core areas and, in the case of these species, there are millions of them in the rest of Europe, so why are we in the UK worrying about protecting something that is marginal?

We had a similar situation with an SPA and the associated habitat assessment. We had to react to certain statements that something is likely to be affected and prove that it won’t. Making that proof or generating that evidence is not always possible. So, you are caught between a rock and a hard place.

A good example I know about is the Siberian flying squirrel. These things creep across the border from Russia into Finland and they cause enormous problems. We in Europe are suffering because there is a curtain at the boundary of this directive, which only looks at a narrow image within a part of Europe – it is not looking properly at the diversity of these species [across Europe and Russia].
Acquiring planning permission for an extractives project is a difficult process, and the panel opened up about the challenges.

We are still in early days when it comes to planning applications for hydraulic fracturing. There are some that are going through in the UK at the moment for drilling a well and taking a core sample, but the only two applications that involve hydraulic fracturing are the two in Lancashire from Cuadrilla and Centrica. The sites there were announced in February 2014, and planning applications went in in May – it should take four months from when you put the applications in, but Lancashire County Council delayed once to the end of November, then delayed again to January 2015. So it has already been pushed back. A problem is that the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive, and DECC regulate onshore oil and gas, but then you have a local authority making the actual planning decision. Sometimes the boundaries between four agencies aren’t clear. Another thing to add in that mix is the judicial review situation. Everyone has been quite nervous about the judicial views on those decisions and whether that could delay it any further.

If we think about Hemerdon, we have got one of the largest deposits in the world that could provide 4% of the world’s demand for tungsten, and all from 50ha of land. We have a critical metal that is needed globally and it is going to come from within this country. It effectively took 20 years to get planning permission at Hemerdon. It involved upwards of £30m of exploration that proved the deposit only to 200 metres.

Public acceptance of the mining industry is vital for its success in the UK and there is work being done to engage with various groups, but
some don’t always give the science equal weight to their own beliefs.

Andy Howard, Science Director for Geology at the British Geological Survey (BGS): We have got to improve the communication, dialogue and the mutual understanding between groups of people. It is a combination of the science, the communication of the economic benefits and an understanding of the values of the population. My role at BGS is to ensure that we have the baseline evidence of the nation’s geology to inform a diverse range of decisions about competing use of subsurface space. An objective evidence base will help us make the right decisions in the future about which type of development to go for. The need to be able to value national capital has emerged, but I have a concern that the geoscience community is not engaging as strongly and effectively as it could do in that concept.

There is that wider issue around where our energy comes from and how indigenous sources of oil and gas fit into that mix. The North Sea guaranteed our energy security and also helped the environment a huge amount. In the 1970s, before we worried about things like CO2, we switched domestic heating over to natural gas, and then we switched a lot of power generation over to natural gas and coal in the 1990s – both those things were good for our environment.

Drakelands mine 

Australia-based Wolf Minerals acquired the Hemerdon site, located north of Plymouth, in 2007. There is an estimated 404.4Mt of tungsten at the site – Wolf claims it is the third-largest tungsten and tin resource in the world. The mine began construction in February 2014 and is planned to be operational in the third quarter of 2015. It is expected to produce 5,000t of tungsten each year, plus 1,000t of tin concentrate. The pit is expected to measure 450x800m and be 230m deep. Planning approval for the mine was initially granted in June 1986.

York Potash project

York Potash Limited is a wholly owned subsidiary of Sirius Minerals. The company is targeting a mineral called polyhalite, a multi-nutrient version of potash. The underground mine will be located 3.5km south of Whitby, a coastal town in North Yorkshire. A private farm and a commercial forestry block currently sit on the site, but it is on the edge of a national park, which has added some complexity to the project. An underground mineral transport system will carry the polyhalite 37.5km to an associated materials handling facility at Teesside, and there it will be taken to a port facility. The company is expecting to export more than five million tonnes of the mineral each year. If approvals come through, the company hopes to sink a shaft by October 2015.