Mine closure - do we have what it takes?

Mine closure is the topic of the moment.  The recent Mine Closure 2019 in Perth was booked out for weeks beforehand.  Why so and why now?

Ten years ago, the book “101 things to do with a hole in the ground” was published to a niche market of closure and sustainability practitioners.  It sold out, twice!

Centres of Excellence in rehabilitation (eg the UQ Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation) have existed for much longer, and for many years the major mining companies established specialist closure teams within their corporate structures.  So why the fuss now when mine closure has always been an integral part of mine planning? 

A 2018 Senate Inquiry into Mining Rehabilitation highlighted the lack of capacity to close mines as a challenge to both existing operations and future sector investment.  In Australia alone this is of significant concern, with numerous major Australian operations scheduled for closure in the next two to ten years (eg Argyle, Ranger, East Weipa, Gove, Rosebery, Telfer, Stradbroke Island sand mine, several operations in the Pilbara, Hunter Valley and Bowen Basin).  A quick trawl through the literature suggests two reasons for the rapid climb of closure up the risk radar.

  1. It is a fairly well accepted tenet that the bonds held to cover unincurred closure costs for operating mines are wholly inadequate. It is also a well-known fact that State Governments hold unfunded abandoned mine liabilities of multi-billions of dollars. But now we are seeing changes in policy settings around closure. Regulatory frameworks are being tightened and financial instruments mobilised to secure funds to address the risks of abandonment. In turn, greater awareness of the investor, political and social risks from unclosed mines is influencing the investor markets. Uncertainty in our ability to close mines is beginning to impact our ability to open them in the first place.

  2. Examples of successfully closed mines can be found around the world. So, too, can higher profile examples of poorly closed or abandoned mines. Therein lies a key issue.In our increasingly connected and integrated world, the concerns and risks highlighted by poor examples of, or lack of mine closure, dominate the discourse. Rightly so. We should all be holding poor performers to account and seeking to raise global performance across the board through the examples of leading practice. After all, if we don’t get closure right, then it is our regional communities and ecosystems that suffer.

Neither of these issues can be solved solely by science and engineering. Both could be said to be emergent properties from what is, after all, a highly complex system. When mining took off in a big way in the 70s/80s, we didn’t really think about closure. We still discount it in our current planning process.  And only now, having been through various boom and bust cycles, are we seeing the ultimate cost of closure reducing investor confidence.

So it’s no wonder mine closure is receiving a lot of attention at the moment. On a global scale, the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) has placed integrated mine closure at the forefront of their Mining with Principles strategy 2018 – 2021. In fact the ICMM Closure Working Group met in Perth – alongside Mine Closure 2019.  ICMMs members need to be able to not only close, but also relinquish mines to deliver on the social purpose now being called for by investors and ESG funds

Closure challenges introduce new risks to regional mining economies.  However, there is opportunity here also.  In February 2019, the Commonwealth Government published a National Resources Statement, linking a need for longterm rehabilitation and closure research to the development of regional environmental outcomes, engaged communities working through mining transitions and related export opportunities.  Australia is aspiring to a new globally competitive service and technology sector to address an emerging billion dollar market in mine closure and succession.

So why is it so difficult to agree on an end use when there must be many more than 101 options?  Of course, it’s about risk, potential risk and the distribution of risk.

Mine closure is a classic example of a “wicked problemA wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve due to: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved,  the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems. Wicked problems cannot be engineered away.   

So do we have what it takes to deliver mine closure, around the globe to systematically high standards? We certainly have high levels of skill in different aspects that require consideration in mine closure.  We have amazing pockets of expertise available through industry, government, research institutions and in the community.  But it tends to be segregated along disciplinary lines, or steps in the mining value chain, and there still seems to be argument about which is the most important discipline.

What we don’t have, at scale, are pockets of connecting expertise that can look at the system interactions affecting closure and accept that wicked problems have messy solutions.  Where are we training the leaders of the future to simultaneously understand how action in the plant impacts cost of closure, and likelihood of closure impacts shareholder confidence?  More significantly, how are we supporting these extraordinary individuals with decision tools that are sophisticated enough to simulate the whole system? And finally, how do we train and develop the next generation of closure professionals given declining interest in relevant subjects such as STEM, critical inquiry and social science?

Addressing mine closure, systematically, repeatedly and collaboratively with stakeholders will require new ways of thinking about how the mining system evolves, the skills and integrated disciplines required to develop solutions and the education and training required to develop closure professionals, tools and decision makers for a future where mines are closing faster than they are opening.

Last updated:
16 September 2019