Sustainable mining: Faint hope or urgent reality?
Engineers dealing with infrastructure development are well used to their projects facing intense scrutiny via the planning system and projects usually face vigorous opposition, often leading to further examination in the judicial system
An ‘oppose everything’ society?
The eastern region water supply, north Dublin’s Wastewater plant, numerous wind farms and road projects all face strong opposition. The Apple data centre in Athenry was abandoned in the face of judicial challenges, while the Corrib gas project took almost 15 years to materialise.
Mining is no different. The Galmoy zinc lead mine in Co Kilkenny opened in 1995 and now closed, was evaluated by two local authorities, An Bord Pleanala, the Mining Board and the High Court.
The proposed Curraghinalt gold mine in Co Tyrone has attracted more than 15,000 objections (many perhaps computer generated) and some 3,000 supporters and has already been subject to one judicial challenge.
Opposition to mining has shifted the focus to objecting to the mineral exploration phase. If opponents can stifle exploration, there can be no discoveries to mine.
Climate action and minerals
Climate action plans: the acronym ‘CAP’ is already used for the Common Agricultural Policy so I must forego CAP for a climate action plan (the CAP itself will need to change in the light of climate actions needed).
Climate action plans at national and global levels stress inter alia the need for reducing greenhouse gases by providing more renewable energy, electric vehicles, smarter buildings, better communications and reuse/recycling in a circular economy.
Realisation of these plans will require the use of significant amounts of minerals, many of which are already in short supply and/or are sourced in politically sensitive places.
The International Energy Agency estimates that the amount of copper needed to supply electric vehicles will increase by almost two million tonnes by 2030.
Demand surges from EVs will also arise for nickel, cobalt, lithium, aluminium and manganese. If HGVs and buses go electric, the demand for these minerals can be expected to increase by an order of magnitude. Without further discoveries and development of new mines, shortages will occur and prices will rise.
The EU and the US recognise the shortages of critical raw materials and have developed policies to reduce dependence on supplies from outside their jurisdictions.
However, rare earth minerals necessary for wind turbines and mobile phones are largely sourced from China. Cobalt for batteries comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, not renowned for its environmental or health and safety record.
EU policies, however, do not seem to find strong endorsement in many member states, as the mining sector in several EU countries is in decline or non-existent.
Finding and developing new mines: SLO
Geoscientists are adept at discovery, while engineers and metallurgists fulfil the development tasks. For example, recent years have seen the discovery of new lithium deposits, an integral battery mineral; supply fears were intense 10 years ago.
However, the development of new mines requires community acceptance at local and national levels of a proposed project.
This is often referred to as Social Licence to operate (SLO). The absence of SLO will delay or derail projects.
The mining industry is striving to improve its relationship with communities with initiatives like the intergovernmental forum on sustainable mining which Ireland joined this year; protocols for community engagement developed by the International Council of Mining and Metals and by policies adopted by national mining associations.
The Irish Centre for Applied Research in Geosciences (iCRAG), operated by six Irish universities led by UCD and funded by SFI, recognises the importance of public perception and understanding of geosciences. iCRAG sponsors postgraduate researchers on the issue and has recently concluded a UNESCO-sponsored workshop on the topic.
Raising public awareness of the importance of minerals in climate action and mitigation is an urgent priority for national and local governments.
Geological Survey Ireland is a section of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and has an important role to play in this regard.
Ireland’s recently published climate action plan recognises a number of climate related tasks for GSI but does not adequately address the need to explain and promote the public understanding of minerals.
GSI has recently engaged with regional planning authorities in explaining the need to recognise the importance of resources for building materials (aggregates) for housing and infrastructure development. Similar but more extensive action is needed to bring matters to the wider public and community groups.
Professional and vocational organisations such as Engineers Ireland continue to provide informed and constructive commentary on Ireland’s infratstructure needs. Minerals and mining need to be centre stage in that process.
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