In order for Australia to maintain its position as a world leader in mining, improving the success of finding major deposits under cover will be required. AMIRA International’s roadmap outlines some key ways Australia can meet the current exploration challenges.
In Australia, not only are the average head grades decreasing, but the remaining ore is also becoming more complex and requires more energy and water to process. More importantly, we are simply not finding enough high-quality ore to replace what we are mining. We are not finding tier one non-bulk deposits to ensure that Australia’s place as a mining powerhouse will be maintained long into the future.
History tells us that it can take up to ten years to make an economic discovery. A recent report from Richard Schodde notes that the delay between discovery and development for a new gold discovery is 13 years, and up to 15-20 years to put it into production – statistics that are likely to get worse for deposits in areas of cover (Schodde, 2014). In order to avoid the so called ‘production cliff’ in non-bulk mineral reserves in the near future we need to speed up discovery and accelerate the development time. In a report released in October 2017, Schodde forecasts the likely number of gold mines, production, revenues and associated employment out to 2057. Of concern is his prediction that by 2032 half of Australia’s gold production will come from mines that are yet to be discovered (Schodde, 2017).
We all understand that the declining discovery rate is a function of Australia’s maturity; most, if not all, of the world-class deposits that were either at or near the surface have been found. This is, of course, exacerbated by the decline in greenfield exploration expenditure.
However, when we talk about maturity, we are referring to those areas with little to minimal cover. In Australia, this only represents about 30 per cent of the landmass.
Therefore, some 70 per cent of the Australian continent is very much a new frontier for exploration.
There is an immense opportunity to expand the exploration search space to the rest of the continent. However, to be successful in this new search space, we must reduce the uncertainty and risk in exploring in these areas.
This is where the AMIRA International Roadmap for Exploration Under Cover: Unlocking Australia’s Hidden Potential comes in. The roadmap has been developed to address this challenge and position Australia to deliver major new mines and be the global leader in exploration beneath the post-mineral cover. The roadmap builds on the UNCOVER initiative and provides a blueprint not only for what needs to be done, but also how it can be achieved.
The roadmap is the result of unprecedented collaboration over the past three years facilitated and managed by AMIRA International. A total of 53 organisations contributed financial support; but more importantly, 203 personnel representing exploration and mining companies (majors, mid-tiers and juniors), METS suppliers, the research community and industry peak bodies contributed to the construction of the roadmap.
As the roadmap outlines, to lower the uncertainty and risk associated with exploration in areas of cover, new data, new knowledge, new tools, new approaches and new skills will be required. The potential prize is huge – perhaps the next Olympic Dam, Mount Isa, Broken Hill or Kalgoorlie’s Golden Mile, hidden under cover and waiting to be discovered. Such a discovery would provide a boost to job creation and regional infrastructure, not to mention future mineral exports and exports of technology and services. In addressing the big challenges associated with exploration under cover, we will also enhance Australia’s research capability and infrastructure while providing an opportunity to train the next generation of researchers, industry leaders and operators.
Australia has built a reputation as a world leader in geoscience and economic geology-related research. This reputation was the result of sustained investment over the past 70 years, which has built an enviable geoscientific community and infrastructure. Although this community has served Australia well, it nevertheless has not been unified by a common vision, and research activities have been nationally disjointed and based on individual interest and capability. To achieve the roadmap vision, we need a much more coordinated and collaborative approach.
Early in the roadmapping process it was recognised that newly identified research and technology development programs, coupled with new and accelerated data initiatives, would require a significant expansion of effort from the broader exploration geoscientific community. With this in mind, the roadmap provided an opportunity to map out and report the geoscience capability and capacity of Australia. This exercise resulted in the first ever national geoscience capability and capacity map, which showed that Australia is generally well-placed to address the knowledge gaps, barriers and challenges articulated in the roadmap. However, a review of capacity against the roadmap requirements raises significant potential future resourcing issues.
The total current national capacity of 900 geoscientists across all disciplines from the geoscience capacity map (including PhD candidates), compared to the similar capacity demand (more than 900 required in year four of the roadmap) highlights the shortfall. This deficit in capacity is due to existing resources already utilised, and is compounded by an aging profile of geoscientists within the research and geological agencies (a trend not confined to geoscience). Further work is required to expand the map to identify potential excess capability and capacity in the exploration, mining and METS sectors. However, the current first pass assessment clearly points to the need to attract additional resources either in Australia from the industry sector or from overseas, and to collaborate with those overseas institutions who are also addressing some of the key themes of the roadmap.
The AusIMM has reported that the mining industry directly employs 240 800 people and, including the METS sector, contributes A$236 billion per annum to Australia’s economy. Australia will not be able to improve on these statistics, let alone maintain them, unless we start finding new world-class deposits. Considering the length of the lead times to discovery and then to production, this means that we need to start now. We need to start generating new data, creating new knowledge, and developing new tools, that will help to lower the uncertainty and risk associated with exploration in areas of cover as quickly as possible.
The roadmap calls for an investment in excess of A$900 million over 15 years in addition to the continued funding of incentives and programs currently in place by the Australian federal, state and territory agencies. This funding is for new research, enhancing existing technologies as well as developing new ones, and to accelerate existing pre-competitive data acquisition programs. Geophysical and geochemical tools will play an even greater role in exploration under cover, as will better integration of data and knowledge aimed at improving our understanding of mineral systems, which will enable improved prediction and detection of economic ore systems at a range of scales.
The roadmap identifies some ‘low hanging fruit’, ie activities to pursue that will ensure positive impact on discovery success in the short term:
- understanding the type, age and depth of cover leading to the production of 3D geology and palaeosurface maps and layers
- characterising and mapping major mineral system ‘footprint’ signatures through compiling geological, geochemical and geophysical data
- improving the understanding of mineral systems across scales for different deposit types and commodities.
The next 12 months is going to be important; we need to bring together an Implementation Task Force – a representative group of senior personnel from key stakeholders who will be tasked to make some decisions on the way forward presented in the roadmap. Agreement on the funding model, and the nature of entity required to execute the R&D programs, are going to be key outcomes. The latter, which we have called the Australian Centre for under cover Exploration (ACE), will require a new collaborative model, one that is focused on developing solutions in the most optimal and timely way. This means bringing together the best people to address each of the research and technology development challenges.
We encourage all geoscientists to get behind this; we all should contribute any way we can by lobbying and encouraging our leaders – whether in our companies or in government – to support this endeavour so that consensus can be reached and we can start the important work the roadmap describes and truly uncover Australia.
To register for a copy of the AMIRA International Roadmap please visit www.amirainternational.com.
Schodde R, 2014. Key issues affecting the time delay between discovery and development, PDAC 2014 [online]. Available from: http://www.minexconsulting.com/publications/Schodde%20presentation%20to%20PDAC%20March%202014.pdf
Schodde R, 2017. Long-term forecast of Australia’s mineral production and revenue. The outlook for gold: 2017-2057 [online]. Available from: https://www.minexconsulting.com/publications/Long%20Term%20Production%20Forecast%20Report%2016%20Oct%202017.pdf