Big constraints, bigger opportunities: what 2024 holds for Australian mining

Big constraints, bigger opportunities: what 2024 holds for Australian mining

Few industries have tougher timelines than mining. Getting a new mine operational can take a decade, but resource prices can spike or plummet overnight.

The best miners have always had a good eye for trends, able to plan long-term but move quickly.

So what are the industry trends that are shaping the year ahead for Australian miners?

More eyes on safety

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The Australian mining industry is one of the world’s safest, and in the last 50 years we’ve seen extraordinary declines in fatalities. But progress has slowed. In recent years, fatality rates have been stubbornly hovering above the zero goal the industry is pursuing. 

Regulators have noticed too, and we’re seeing safety regulations get tighter, most notably in Western Australia. The recent WHS update there has put a particular focus on underground mines, requiring comprehensive assessment and management of risks. 

One of the biggest change is around ventilation, with new standards requiring ventilation systems to be capable of ensuring adequate air quality even if a mine’s entire haul fleet is underground at the same time. 

Operating a traditional mine air system of that capacity would obviously be highly wasteful. But what changes like this do is highlight what is most exciting in mining right now – the fact that investments in safety don’t have to just be investments in safety, but can also drive sustainability and productivity.  Ventilation systems like ​​ABB’s have moved beyond remote control to fully automated ventilation on-demand, using sensors throughout the mine that collect real-time information about air quality, diesel-vehicle use, personnel, and algorithms to precisely match ventilation to dynamic needs. 

By supplying fresh air only where needed, we’re seeing ​​mines fully halve their ventilation energy expenditure, while also ensuring safer air quality for personnel. Being able to more quickly evacuate blast gases means they’re even boosting productivity by shortening downtime. 

It’s a similar story with tech like robot chargers for remote blasting, or replacing haul trucks with conveyors or hoists.  The best safety investments are also making miners more productive and more sustainable. 

Nowhere to hide on sustainability 

The scrutiny on sustainability is ratcheting up at an even faster rate, in large part due to ever-tightening reporting requirements. 

Scrutiny on Scope 1 and 2 emissions is nothing new. But with big companies across the globe (including here) soon to be required to include sustainability and climate-related disclosures in their financial reporting (in line with International Sustainability Standards Board standards), the focus on scope 3 emissions is soaring. 

Put simply, it means mines with the materials needed to help build our cleaner, greener future will find themselves cut off from being able to do so if they can’t demonstrate their sustainability to the market. 

It’s extra (non-diesel) fuel on the fire that is pushing some seriously ambitious goals on decarbonising Australian mining. But sustainability investments can’t just be environmentally sustainable – they have to be financially sustainable too. 

This is what excites me the most about 2024. It truly feels like the strength of the will to decarbonise and the feasibility of doing so have never been better matched. Done right, investing in sustainability doesn’t just reduce emissions – it makes mines safer and more productive.

Big movement on electrification

The best evidence for this is the flurry of interest in the electric mine. 

This year is set to deliver major forward momentum, with a host of local projects giving Australia a chance to show its leadership in mine electrification. And with Perth hosting the Electric Mine 2024 conference, the stage is set for a compelling diaglogue. 

ABB, along with Perenti, is deep into a study for full underground electrification of IGO’s Cosmos Nickel Project in Western Australia.  BHP is understood to be seeking proposals for wind and solar to power its Pilbara operations as it seeks to make good on its goal of 200 MW of renewable energy generation by 2030.1 

Thanks to the Electric Mine Consortium, working groups are testing mine-scale remote energy storage at five test sites – other projects are working on mine design and vehicle electrification. 

For a little extra impetus, there are also mounting calls to cap the diesel fuel rebate at $50m annually per company.

Skills shortages and skills shifts

Well over four in five mining leaders say that finding and keeping the talent they need is getting harder, and almost the same number report that not being able to find that talent is holding them back from strategic goals and production objectives.

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As troubling as this is, it’s not too surprising when you consider that between 2015 and 2021, the number of Australian students enrolled in mining engineering courses fell by more than two-thirds. 

Clearly, mining has an image problem, particularly with upcoming generations. But just as clearly, mining is fundamental to building our decarbonised economy.  In the context of the industry’s gallop toward digitalisation and automation, a few things are clear: 

  • Miners who can demonstrate a solid commitment and real-world results on ESG (with a particular focus on the S) are at a recruitment advantage. 
  • The skills needed in the mining workforce are evolving quickly, with data science and automation rapidly growing in importance. 
  • Miners who aren’t able to attract the right talent risk being left behind as the rest of the industry digitises, electrifies and automates. 
  • Technology partners are just as important as the technology itself. 

Capital constraints

Costs for labour, steel, parts, and technology have all increased and continue to rise. The Covid-19 pandemic negatively impacted the availability of materials and componentry, which had further cost implications for the market that are still being felt, although we have seen some improvement recently. For these increases to the cost base do more than erode profits – they also make raising capital harder. 

In 2022, a major survey of metals mining executives found that capital wasn’t in even their top five concerns. It was down at number eight. 

Last year, it had leapt into second spot, behind only ESG.4  This is an environment where we will see strategic investments in productivity can be tougher to make, but also more important than ever.  

Bringing it all together

Every engineer knows the adage “Strong. Light. Cheap: pick two.” For a long time, miners could say something similar about safety, productivity and sustainability.  

But not anymore. Now, wise investments in one of these can – and should – also move the dial on the other two. Boosting productivity can and should boost safety. Wise investments in worker safety should cut energy use, and so forth. 

Australian mining has much to be optimistic about, but can’t ignore the multiple, intersecting challenges that they must navigate to make the most of their opportunities.  But just as the challenges intersect, so do many of the solutions. 

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Stuart Cowie is the head of ABB Australia’s Process Industries business, where he oversees ABB’s automation and electrical solutions across industries such as mining, metals production, pulp and paper, and cement. 

Stuart joined ABB in 1998. In 2002, he was appointed General Manager of Industrial Automation in New Zealand before moving to Australia in 2012 to take on the role of Service Manager for the Process Automation before being appointed to head the Process Industries business in 2016.

Stuart has over 35 years’ experience in the paper, metals and mining industry and through this time he has been involved with sales, service and project management of automation and electrification projects.

Stuart holds a Higher Diploma in Electrical Engineering from Witwatersrand Technikon in South Africa, a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of South Africa, and earned his MBA from the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

References:

  1. https://www.afr.com/street-talk/bhp-issues-rfp-to-electrify-the-pilbara-20240121-p5eyw1
  2. https://climateenergyfinance.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/Fuel-Tax-Credit-Scheme-and-Heavy-Haulage-Electric-Vehicle-Manufacturing-in-Australia.docx.pdf
  3. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/metals-and-mining/our-insights/has-mining-lost-its-luster-why-talent-is-moving-elsewhere-and-how-to-bring-them-back
  4. https://assets.ey.com/content/dam/ey-sites/ey-com/en_gl/topics/mining-metals/ey-top-10-business-risks-and-opportunities-for-mining-and-metals-in-2024-final.pdf?download

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