October 2019

Obituary: Michael Oley

  • By Liz Oley


Michael Oley

After graduating in Chemical Engineering from the University of Queensland, Michael Oley joined the CRA (now Rio Tinto) Group at its operations in Broken Hill, NSW. He was based there eight years, although he spent extended periods at Weipa, North Queensland and Palabora, South Africa. 

In May 1975, Michael joined the corporate consulting group of Roan Consolidated Mines (RCM) at their head office in Lusaka, Zambia. RCM operated a number of copper mines, smelters and refineries, as well as cobalt and precious metals processing facilities on the Copperbelt of Zambia. 

On return to Australia, Michael rejoined the Rio Tinto Group at its Australian corporate headquarters in Melbourne where he spent the next 10 years working on corporate strategy, particularly in the area of technology. His work involved extensive travel to Europe, the USA and Japan. During this time he also completed postgraduate studies in mineral economics. 

In late 1988, Michael joined a small team within Rio Tinto who were examining the feasibility of developing a large open pit gold deposit at a remote location in the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. For the next three years, he remained based in Melbourne although he spent over half his time outside Australia. The feasibility study was positive and in early 1992 he moved to East Kalimantan as Director of Operations. 

For five years, he lived in the coastal town of Balikpapan, from where he commuted by helicopter to the mine site on a weekly basis. In early 1997, Michael took up a consulting position in Jakarta at Rio Tinto’s country headquarters where he was involved with environmental issues associated with the group’s Indonesian mining operations. As an ex-colleague from Grasberg pointed out, Michael worked with others to get the expansion environmental approvals for the increase in concentrator capacity from 115 kt per day to 250 kt per day.

It was a time of great change in Indonesia with the downfall of Soeharto, the first free elections in almost fifty years and the granting of independence to East Timor. In mid-2000, Michael took early retirement from Rio Tinto. At his farewell he said ‘My involvement with Kelian will remain one of the highlights of my working life. Despite what some of the more radical members of the green community might have us think, major mines are not developed that often and to take part in the final exploration stages through feasibility studies, final design, construction, commissioning and operations is an experience that doesn’t come very often. I was lucky enough to have that experience at Kelian.’

Michael returned to Melbourne with his wife Liz and became a full-time student at the University of Melbourne. After completing a number of undergraduate subjects in Art History and Philosophy, as well as learning Ancient Greek, he did a fourth year in philosophy, gaining first class honours. He was part way through a PhD in Philosophy when his supervisor took another job. His research area was the aesthetic theories of the 18th century German poet, dramatist and philosopher Friedrich Schiller, and he was examining the relevance of his ideas to the role of beauty and art in modernity. 

Michael Oley died unexpectedly in his sleep on 16 February 2019.

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