Recently, I was eating lunch with a couple of friends, when a random person overheard our discussion about the mining industry and a spate of recent layoffs. However, instead of commiserating with us, this random mentioned that mining should be banned.
At first I just thought they had an objection to uranium mining, blood diamonds or something. Not so. They apparently thought all mining should be banned.
Turning around to face our interrupter, I noticed their smartphone, iPad and car keys. Curiously, I brought this up. How do you propose to make mobile phones, tablets or cars without metal produced by the mining industry?
Apparently “that’s not the point“. I beg to differ – that is exactly the point.
Unsurprisingly, this was an argument I’ve had before. While I consider myself to be a bit of a “greenie”, someone who is environmentally conscious and who is into conservation, I also appreciate that mining is necessary for society to function, for developing nations to develop.
We need iron to make the steel that goes into constructing new homes and buildings. We need copper for telecommunications. We need zinc for electrical components. We need gold and silver because I like jewellery!
The reality is that we need mining to produce the metals that we use in our everyday lives. Do I think that there are environmental issues surrounding the mining industry? Of course I do. However I also believe that mining companies in most parts of the world are taking steps to mitigate such problems. Why? Because there are more rigorous regulatory approvals in place these days, and there is also something called the “social license to operate”. If you anger the local population by contaminating the local water supply, or destroying sacred sites etc. then you lose your social license to operate. I have seen mining projects fall over because of this. Take for example the case of the Pascua-Lama mine on the Chile-Argentina border. There have been ongoing legal proceedings by local community groups trying to shut the mine down over environmental and social impact concerns. These legal proceedings halted construction at the mine while the case was being heard and during the appeals process. It is still an ongoing situation, and is costing Barrick Gold a lot of money in legal costs, as well as the delays in construction.
There are also obvious workplace health and safety concerns. As an example, a recent spate of incidents in South Africa with miners being trapped underground has lead to nationwide protests and mine shutdowns.
No mining company wants to face situations like those. So they are now improving their mining practices to reduce the risk of alienating the local communities and potentially losing their ability to operate through government intervention.
So, do I think mining should be banned? Not at all. Do I think the mining industry is perfect? Not at all. However, I do genuinely believe that mining companies are rapidly improving. That they are taking giant leaps forward in environmental practices, in working with local communities more effectively, in developing mine rehabilitation procedures…There is too much at stake. And the problems can’t be hidden with the amount of media attention focused on the mining industry these days.
That environmentally friendly Prius you’re so proud to own? Yeah, that still requires metal produced from the mining industry…