“Challenges are more opportunity than problem”

2019-12-09 10:48

Ben Chalmers, Senior Vice President of The Mining Association of Canada, was in Mongolia in September to spread awareness about the concept of TSM or Towards Sustainable Mining. B. Tugsbilegt finds out from him more about TSM, and how it would help mining meet stricter standards of emission reduction, water management and such environmental challenges.

Reducing greenhouse gas emission is not yet a priority area of concern for Mongolian miners but this will surely change as the world gears for climate change. What are the things to which they should pay special attention?
There can be no doubt that mining should pay attention to climate change. One way we can do this is to use a system like TSM to manage our energy usage effectively and to set emissions targets.  This goes hand-in-hand with our role in the transition to a low-carbon economy. Mining has to be a major part of the solution as building electric cars, solar panels, wind turbines and such eco-friendly things will require more metals and minerals. For example, electric cars will need significantly more copper, lithium, cobalt, nickel and other metals. So, as we produce more, we must do that responsibly. That is where Towards Sustainable Mining enters the picture. Using energy efficiently and reducing greenhouse gas emissions is an important component of our programme. As part of the standard, mines must adopt detailed energy management systems and be transparent about their emissions. They will have to set out their targets in both and be accountable for those targets.

Will it be possible for miners to meet the greenhouse gas emission standards likely to be set by international conventions such as the Paris accord?
I wouldn’t say that it’s impossible. The single largest source of emissions from mining is the combustion of fossil fuels for mobile equipment and electricity. In many cases, energy accounts for up to one-third of our operating costs and anything we do to reduce energy also reduces our costs, so there is a bottom line incentive. Actually, I see this more as an opportunity. Using a system like TSM will help miners streamline their energy use thus reduce their emissions and at the same time, reduce their costs. All of these are positive aspects for us.

All this has to fit in with national policy. In Canada the main policy tool that has been used to achieve emissions reduction has been a carbon tax. Our association has been supportive of the tax but we’ve also advocated for investing the amount thus collected on research to develop new technologies to reduce emissions and increase efficiencies. We’ve also advocated for mines in remote regions to be treated separately acknowledging that they may not have the same options to reduce fossil fuels do to their remoteness. This is because such mines, for example those in the Arctic areas in northern Canada, often have no alternative to using diesel to generate electricity and so a carbon tax there is just an added cost and cannot actually work as an incentive to change. In contrast, mines in southern Canada are able to connect to our electricity grids that are primarily fed by clean power such as hydro-electric. We are also seeing increasing investments in renewables.

Tell our readers a little more about TSM. How many countries have joined it?
TSM has been around for 15 years and defines environmental and social standards and practices that should be implemented in mining operations. For example, individual mines are required to transparently report on their performance in several environmental and social indicators including tailings management, energy and greenhouse gas management, community engagement, water stewardship, biodiversity, and others. It comes with independent assurance that the data are collected and presented in a proper and truthful manner so that there is public confidence in them. These reports are overseen not just by the industry association but also by a multi-stakeholder panel, we call our Community-of-Interest Advisory Panel, set up to provide independent oversight and advice. 

Altogether seven countries are now partnering in TSM. Canada was of course the first country to join the club, followed by Finland, Argentina, Botswana, the Philippines, Spain and, most recently, Brazil.

Should Mongolia be joining this initiative?
Mongolia has to make that decision. We offer TSM free to any national association that is interested in working with us on it, but it is up to them to decide if they want the relationship. You understand that if it is to be adopted here, it would have to be adopted by the Mongolian National Mining Association. The initiative ultimately has to come from MNMA members. 

A major principle of TSM is commitment to better water usage. Mines, especially those in the Gobi, mostly use mine water or pit water and also flood water and underground water. Their underground water recycling level is over 90 percent. Do you think they should do more?
The TSM water stewardship protocol sets out a number of criteria on how best to manage water internally. Achieving 90 percent recycling is very good indeed, but there’s still 10 percent new water that should be managed and the discharge of water also needs to be taken care of. In Canada such issues are very well regulated and we look for ways to structure the TSM protocols to add value beyond regulation and one of the ways that we do that is by including criteria requiring mines to work with other water users in the river basin to identify and manage broader watershed issues such as cumulative effects.  This helps motivate that all water users are working together to ensure water is used sustainable by all users including both mining and other users such as agriculture or tourism. Working with your other users of the water helps make sure that the water in the river shed or the aquifer is managed sustainably.

Canada is a leading practitioner of sustainable mining practices, but does work at the oil sands in Alberta follow these high standards? 
Yes, it does. Three companies mining for oil in Alberta are our members and they have been remarkably successful in implementing TSM. 

They have some of the largest tailing facilities in the world and they manage these to a very high level of performance in the TSM system. They’ve also reduced their emissions. Mining is not without its challenges, including in this sector, but the reality is that we need to get our oil from somewhere and I’m happy that our oil sands mines are producing using our TSM standard. While we, as a society, transition to a low-carbon economy, oil will still need to be produced. It’s a key part of our economy and a key part of our membership.

I can also add that in the Canadian context of working with Indigenous communities, they’ve really made a lot of progress in employing indigenous people and in taking steps to help these communities benefit from mining. Recently one of our companies, Suncor worked with their indigenous communities to help them make an investment of CA$500 million in a tank farm for their long-term economic benefit. They have also been significant innovators in areas like mine closure and have pioneered methods to reclaim tailings facilities, including some projects that have successfully turned old tailings facilities into working wetlands. And they’ve also shown a lot of leadership by frequently coming together for sustainability. The Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) is a joint organisation of oil sands producers focused on accelerating the pace of improvement in environmental performance through collaborative action and innovation, with greenhouse gas emissions being one of its four environmental priority areas.

What do you see as the principal challenges before mining companies and how can these be successfully tackled?
A lot of changes are coming our way. Miners will play an important role in the transition to a low-carbon economy. We are obliged to make sure that when we develop new mines or deposits, we do so in the most responsible ways possible. Programmes like TSM are a key part of how we make that transition by being more transparent, by working more closely with communities as partners to avoid conflict, and by collaborating more among ourselves. More and more work will be done by AI and things like remote-operated and autonomous vehicles have already started to change the way in which we have our employment structured. 

There’s a lot of uncertainty around that but I think the good news is that we are facing it head on. While there may be fewer truck drivers on the other hand, there will be need for other people in new areas. In Canada we have the Mining Industry Human Resources Council whose job it is to forecast labour market needs and to work with universities and governments to make sure that we’re training people in the skills of tomorrow. As we make the inevitable transition, we have to make sure that it is made easier for those who get displaced. There are lots of challenges ahead, not just from automation and the demand for responsible practices but also from greater scrutiny from our customers. Global brands are beginning to demonstrate that the metals and minerals from them are responsibly produced. Programmes like TSM will help in the transition.  

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