The words “green” and “mining” certainly do not jive, but with the pressure that the mining industry is facing due to global warming and climate change, there are groups lobbying for more eco-friendly mining technologies. But is green and sustainable mining even possible, or is it simply an oxymoron?
Joshua Kirkey from Natural Resources Canada defines green mining as “technologies, best practices, and mine processes that are implemented as a means to reduce the environmental impacts associated with the extraction and processing of metals and minerals.” Examples of green mining include various mining approaches to reduce ecological footprint, reduction of greenhouse gases, reduction in chemical use, shutting down illegal and unregulated mines and cleaning them up, and implementing recently discovered green mining technologies.
For centuries, the mining industry requires a huge amount of energy to operate heavy machinery in order to meet production demands. The mining sector also needs ample supplies of water. Statistics show that mining industries eat up almost 20 percent of the world’s water supplies, as almost every stage of the mining process requires tremendous volume of water.
Fortunately, there are now technologies that help decrease energy use through energy utilization plans, which cut the amount of electricity that mining companies use without compromising productivity. Similarly, water usage is also being regulated by employing real-time calculations on water usage. Many companies waste water because they only use averages and estimates in measuring how much water is needed.
According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the development of new mining technologies and regulations improved the efficiency of mining and also reduced its environmental impact by significantly lessening waste byproducts.
“Green mining technologies and practices offer superior performance with respect to energy efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions, and the use of chemicals,” Kirkey said. “[They also] help reduce operating costs for the mining industry and improve its competitiveness.”
Dallas Kachan from consulting company Kachan and Co. also has the same sentiments. He said, “New technology offers the promise not only of saving power and water, but also potentially speeding along the approval and permitting processes as well as minimizing closure costs.”
An example of a country that has started employing greener practices when it comes to mining is China. Before 2010, mining facilities in China were almost unregulated in terms of environmental consciousness and efficiency. This spurred a wave of public protest, forcing the country to enact law measures for greener mining. According to Oko Institute’s Study on Rare Earths and Recycling, China made efforts to shut down illegal mines, and also halted the issuance of new mining licenses for rare earths from 2009 to 2015. Aside from increasing the monitoring of the industry, new requirements were also imposed for an efficient electricity supply. Recycling of water was imposed as well.
In Canada, the Green Mining Initiative successfully installed an automated mine ventilation system in an underground mine in greater Sudbury, Ontario. This resulted to a reduction of up to 40 percent of the energy consumption, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and cost savings amounting up to $4 million annually.
Rare earth metal miner Molycorp acquired Mountain Pass, a mine in California’s Clark Mountain Range. The company implemented some eco-friendly mining practices, such as the use of recycled water and the use of waste heat to generate steam and power, hence decreasing carbon footprint. Similarly, Russian nickel mining company Amur Minerals Corporation plans to use heavy lift vehicles for machinery transportation for its Kun-Manie Project, thus eliminating the need for a 320-kilometer road to be constructed from Baikal Amur to the mining site. Aside from cutting costs and lead time, it also benefits the environment as no construction will take place.
Early adopters are now reaping the benefits of green mining. However, the sustainability of this practice will depend on the standardization of some of these technologies and practices as more and more miners are seeing the benefits of green mining not just to the environment but also to production efficiency.
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