Managing Director of Encounter Resources, WILL ROBINSON, talks about the landscape for junior explorers and what it's going to take to secure the future of mining in Australia. Interview by TIM TREADGOLD
Article from resourceful: Issue 9, March 2016
Roy Woodall, when heading Western Mining Corporation's exploration effort, first raised the importance of "peering beneath the regolith" in the 1970s. Are today's explorers any closer than Roy was?
Based on the small number of major discoveries in recent decades in Australia, you could argue that we aren't much closer than in Roy's day. However, there has been a lot of progress in defining what needs to be done to improve success beneath cover.
In particular, the UNCOVER roadmap launched last year – developed collaboratively by industry, government geological surveys, academia, CSIRO, the Academy of Science and AMIRA – is a vitally important national initiative.
The number one driver of productivity in the resources sector is the quality of the resource.
In recent decades, the quality of ore mined from the national resources inventory has far exceeded the quality of ore that has been found.
'Under cover' exploration science should be central to the innovation priorities of Australia.
What tools do you have that Roy lacked to see what might lie at depth?
Detection limits for geochemical assays have improved, which has assisted in identifying and defining low-level anomalies through cover. As have the quality and coverage of precompetitive datasets available to explorers today.
The greenfield exploration sector is heavily reliant on these datasets, which are provided by the government surveys.
On a more basic level, the use of handheld x-ray fluorescence (XRF) machines has enabled us to quickly obtain almost immediate assay estimates on site. So when conducting regional first-pass exploration, this allows for rapid follow up and infill drilling without the drill rig leaving site.
Another important development is that the depth penetration of electromagnetic (EM) surveys has developed remarkably since Roy's time.
Can small companies make use of the latest technology or is it too costly and only available to the major companies?
They certainly can, and with the way exploration budgets have been slashed in most major companies in recent times, the junior sector is hardly disadvantaged in this area.
The value that can be generated for explorers by partnering on projects with CSIRO and universities is underappreciated.
Encounter has sponsored honours students from Monash University for five years running now. We provide the university with a set of research questions in relation to a project and the results to date have helped shaped future exploration programs.
Australia's exploration sector is made up largely of junior companies and historically they've been responsible for much of the country's mineral ore discoveries. The climate is tough right now. What are the greatest challenges they face?
Right now, maintaining shareholder interest and faith is a challenge. We are competing for risk capital against many others and at this time mineral exploration is right out of favour. That will change, we just don’t know when.
It's also a great time to be working with high-quality people, contractors and equipment, which are readily available.
This point in the cycle is usually when the best exploration work is done. The challenges of capital raising sharpen the focus of the exploration sector on the best projects.
Exploration success in the 1960s and 1970s has allowed the resources industry to defer important investment on exploration. I suspect that the major companies could be forced back into greenfield exploration in a big way in the future.
Exploration is the future lifeblood of the resources sector. Yet at this time, it's being viewed as just another cost.
Imagine if Apple came out and announced that it had slashed all new product development and was going to focus its efforts only on improving the productivity of their existing product line.
How important is research and development to the survival and longevity of junior explorers?
We have enough evidence now to know that we need to do something differently if we want a different result. Greenfield exploration, by its very nature, requires a strong focus on research and development (R&D).
We hypothesise, we test, we interpret the results and we adjust the model. If warranted, we test again. It's a continuous learning loop. You always have to be generating new ideas and concepts.
How does Encounter Resources approach research and development?
At Encounter, we're always testing new ideas, technologies and methodologies to improve our success rate under cover in the Paterson Province in Western Australia, which is dominated by sand cover.
You know the prize is huge, but if it was easy to find, there would already be a hole in the ground.
We have trialled all sorts of geophysical and geochemical methods to help us see through the cover. Right now, we're participating in a research project with CSIRO looking at ultrafine fraction soil and this has huge potential.
Will new exploration tools that can look beneath the regolith encourage a return by explorers to Australia from the greener pastures of Africa and elsewhere where outcrops remain abundant?
Firstly, I would challenge the premise of the question that easily discoverable outcropping orebodies – at least major ones – remain abundant in Africa and elsewhere. For example, two big recent African discoveries, Kamoa and Flatreef, were both blind.
Secondly, I would argue that if we are in a world where most of the big new discoveries are more or less blind – even in Africa – then critical factors become precompetitive data, the supporting geoscience infrastructure, regionspecific R&D, the regulatory framework and overall cost of doing business.
As such, places like Australia may actually be at a competitive advantage over Africa and other locations where sometimes the best geological map might have been made in the 1960s and doesn't go beyond the outcrop.
So in short, yes, I believe that the next wave of major mineral developments can occur in a developed jurisdiction like Australia.
It's entirely possible that Australia's resources industry of the future will be underpinned by cutting edge, under cover greenfield exploration.
What is the outlook for Australia's mining industry without big new discoveries?
It's one where we are mining larger tonnage and lower quality orebodies, usually by open cut mining, with bigger and bigger equipment, using more and more water and energy to extract a smaller and smaller amount of metal from a large body of rock.
If this is the future of mining then we will have failed as a sector.
In this scenario, Australia's resources industry continues to move further and further up the cost curve while we mine the leftovers from previous generations' exploration success. Slowly but surely marginalising ourselves down the quality curve and out of business.
No amount of driverless trucks can compensate for what Mother Nature leaves out.
Will Robinson is chairman of the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies and an executive member of the UNCOVER initiative.
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