April 2018

Developments in community and environment

  • By AusIMM Community and Environment Society

In this special series of articles, we asked some of our AusIMM professional societies and networks for their industry insights. The following is a collection of thoughts from some of our community and environment professionals on how practices have developed over the past 125 years.

Is there a single event that defined the beginning of this technical discipline in Australasia?

No single event triggered the need for professional environmental and social expertise in Australasia’s resources industry. Rather, an escalating succession of protests and legal contests in the 1970s-80s served to demonstrate that public expectations of our industry had changed. Where previously national enthusiasm for economic growth at any cost had supported unconstrained resource development, in the late 20th century there emerged a demand for our industry to improve its environmental and social performance.

National and local governments responded by increasing scrutiny over environmental, land access and development issues. While traditional technical competence had usually defined success, by the 1990s new competencies in environmental and social sciences were increasingly necessary for successful resource development. Early and prominent indicators of change included:

  • the Tom Fitzgerald report, which questioned mining’s net national economic contribution
  • the Fox report, which arose from the Uranium Environmental Inquiry in the Northern Territory in the 1970s
  • Aboriginal Land Rights legislation, also in the 1970s
  • the emergence of legislated environmental management requirements in all jurisdictions
  • Waitangi Tribunal affirmation of Maori rights in New Zealand
  • the passage of the Mabo Case and subsequent Native Title Legislation in Australia.

Many other serious environmental misfortunes, social protests and much new legislation served to affirm the new expectations.

In addition, local communities have become increasingly aware of the potential for negative impacts from mining operations due to NGO activism and the increased use and accessibility of social media. This has resulted in a rise in global expectations, both for Australasian companies working overseas and international companies.

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What industry issues or problems has this discipline helped to address?

Community and environment (C&E) professionals are at the forefront of securing what has become known as ‘social licence to operate’. Instead of relying solely on sovereign legal entitlement, extractive businesses must now first secure social licence: in essence, an intangible social contract that derives from an ability to work with a broad range of stakeholders and demonstrate that it is in everybody’s best interest to exploit a natural resource. This requires demonstrable performance in reducing external impacts, enhancing stakeholder benefits and earning trust. Consequently, governments are more comfortable issuing development and operating permits.

This 21st century operating philosophy required substantial re-engineering across mining and metals operations to eliminate or reduce environmental and social risk. Along with occupational health and safety, the community and environment disciplines provide the expertise that guides and communicates reduction in environmental and human risk exposure, and in doing so leads to business improvement by greatly reducing operational variability.

How has this discipline changed and how might it look in the future?

Until the 1980s, environmental and social science career paths were absent from mining and metals businesses; if any attention was given to C&E issues it was largely at the whim of enlightened managers and amateurs. Initially, social concerns were considered largely environmental in nature and environmental science set the pace in codifying standards and defining, developing and certifying professional credentials. Little attention was given to the social change associated with new and developing mining operations. More recently, social science as a complementary discipline is recognised as being distinct and is developing its own credentials.

The progressive development of social and environmental governance architecture is the major shift underway in how industry approaches C&E management. No longer considered marginal to the ‘real’ business of mining and metals refining, C&E professionals are evolving their credentials and skills as a core industry discipline.

What are the big challenges or opportunities facing this discipline?

Refining the professional competencies that underpin the environmental and social disciplines within the extractive sector remains a major task. Whereas the geological, mining engineering and metallurgy disciplines have well-established histories, the environmental and social disciplines have yet to establish a pedigree. Developing credentials that will enable C&E professionals to contribute to JORC and VALMIN certification is a vital next step. With up to 30 per cent of resource development projects failing because they lack ‘social licence’ and legal approval, the issue is as important for project finance as ore reserves, recovery ratios and balance sheet management. If C&E subjects continue to only be an elective component of tertiary core mining disciplines, this disconnect will continue. The C&E Society has a major role to play in the next iteration of orebody valuation approaches.

The other major challenge is to broaden the applicability and interest of the C&E Society to the wider AusIMM membership. The social perception of mining, particularly by younger generations, can affect the attraction of the best and brightest minds that could help to solve the mining industry’s social and environmental challenges of the future.

What has AusIMM’s role been in advancing professional practice in this discipline?

Barely five years old, the C&E Society is one of AusIMM’s youngest societies. Advancing professional social and environmental practice has mainly been through individuals with long-time membership of the AusIMM, now recognised in C&E Society affiliation. Specific AusIMM publications and conferences with C&E themes have included the Life-of-Mine series of conferences, the upcoming Spectrum publication From Start to Finish: A Life-of-Mine Perspective, along with a well-received webinar series established in 2017.

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