All too often we hear mineral resources discussed in isolation of our everyday lives, but the reality is very different. Our geological heritage impacts our landscapes to our soils; from our fertile farmlands to the locations of many of our cities and regional towns; from ancient cultures to metals for new age devices.
Australia’s mining industry has captured our rich mineral resource endowment to supply the materials that underpin our lifestyles, providing jobs and a strong foundation for the Australian economy since the 1800s.
The industry’s impact is not just nationally significant – importantly, resources have played a major role in the development of rural and regional Australia. Mineral resources continue to offer many opportunities for future regional development, but realising these comes with significant productivity, social and environmental challenges that require innovation.
In this edition of resourceful, we look at some of the ways that CSIRO and our partners are delivering science and innovation to ensure that we get the most from our mineral endowment across various regions of Australia, in a way that’s also socially- and environmentally-responsible.
The importance of resources innovation was highlighted by the Resources 2030 Taskforce, which was established by our Minister for Resources and Northern Australia, Matt Canavan, to ensure the industry can remain globally competitive and sustainable.
The Taskforce recognised the inter-connectivity of the mineral resources industry with the broader economy and emphasised the opportunity to build stronger communities and stronger regions from our mineral and energy resource base.
In the Pilbara region of Western Australia, for example, 36 per cent of the local workforce is employed in the mining sector. In 2016, it is estimated that the resources sector in the Pilbara accounted for $37.8 billion or 88 per cent of regional economic activity. In the same period, the resources sector in the Bowen-Surat basin in Queensland contributed $18.6 billion to Queensland’s regional economic activity. Many regional towns have been developed on the strength of resources activities, as has almost every tropical port from Gladstone to Port Hedland.
We know that there are opportunities to unlock further value from existing mining regions, as well as develop entirely new regions. Yet, large parts of Australia remain poorly explored.
Our close collaboration with Geoscience Australia and state and territory geological surveys is focused on generating new resource discoveries in under-explored regions. As an example, the remote, resource-rich McArthur Basin has been the focus of a three-year research collaboration between CSIRO and the Northern Territory Geological Survey that aims to provide exploration opportunities from a better understanding of the region’s geology.
Yet, new resource discoveries come with a mix of opportunity and risk. To properly develop new mines, a thorough understanding of the target resource and its potential is essential. Our work in understanding the nature of the exciting new conglomerate gold discoveries in the Pilbara is a good example. Highly variable grades and uncertainties on orebody controls and metal distribution greatly increase risk. Our work with exploration companies aims to reduce this risk and enhance the potential for development based on a realistic assessment of the region’s potential.
Although many mines are located in remote areas, they are often associated with pristine natural beauty alongside existing economies and communities. Mine development increasingly relies on overall impact, rather than simply commercial viability. Water is an issue that’s often front and centre, and our new SENSEI technology is currently being trialed by Heathgate Resources to monitor the quality of water, in and around, their in-situ mining operation in real time. This type of security system provides confidence that water-related impacts are effectively managed.
The long-term sustainability of our mineral resources industry also depends on its social licence, and a key part of this is ensuring it benefits everyone including landowners, the community, companies and government. The Gas Industry Social and Environmental Research Alliance initiative (GISERA) is an example of an alliance designed to achieve this. GISERA is focused on quantifying the negative and positive impacts of gas developments and providing scientific evidence to inform communities and industry.
Mineral resources provide a key opportunity for Australia’s future regional development. Continuing to unlock these opportunities for the benefit of all stakeholders – including landowners, the community, producers and government – will be underpinned by science and innovation.