It seems counter-intuitive to use the words “green” and “mining” in the same phrase.
After all, the US metals mining industry is responsible for almost half the toxic chemicals released into air, water and land during as of 2011 – close to 1.9 billion pounds of it.
Not to mention the “can’t believe they do this” mountaintop-removal coal mining in the Appalachian mountains – destroying over 500 mountains so far and dumping the remains in rivers.
So, although mining can never be green, some mining companies are using green technologies to address hundreds of years of inefficiencies and waste, reports Kachan & Co. The industry still basically uses the same ways of getting stuff out of the ground as they did in the early 1900s.
Their primary motivation isn’t necessarily a newfound concern for the environment. Rather, they are attracted by the potential cost savings as they face falling commodity prices, market volatility, decreasing productivity, and more scrutiny on the environmental and social sides.
“While requiring higher upfront capital expenditures, many of these new technologies reduce operation, closure and decommissioning and post-closure costs. Forward-thinking mining companies are incorporating some of these into operations and already realizing value,” says Kachan Managing Partner Dallas Kachan. “Mining companies can’t afford to continue using traditional processes if they want to continue operating competitively and in accordance with increasingly stringent regulations.”
Cleantech Industry Benefits
What’s interesting is that the use of cleaner technologies is creating business for the cleantech industry.
Treating water and wastewater is expected to grow from a $2.29 billion market in 2011 to $3.60 billion in 2016, reports Kachan.
Ecosphere Technologies‘ (OTCBB: ESPH) Ozonic technologies, which is also used by the natural gas fracking industry, offers a mobile, low-maintenance process to treat high volumes of water through oxidation. It recycles all the water while reducing the chemicals used during water treatment. It’s considered a top innovator among water companies.
PapaBravo makes electric vehicles specifically designed for the mining industry.
Rio Tinto, for example, is testing methane capture and carbon storage at mines in Australia, and Barrick Gold gets 19% of its electricity from renewables. It has 140 energy efficiency projects along with water management, recycling and zero discharge programs. 36% of the water Barrick uses now comes from brackish sources instead of drinking water sources; 70% of mining sites have zero discharge policies and use recycled water.
Some practices the 47 companies profiled by Kachan report use:
- using less energy through low power separation, hydrometallurgical processes, and other alternative processes
- using less fuel by optimizing routes for equipment, converting to natural gas and converting to electric, improved lubricants, polymers and coatings
- reducing toxics through bioleaching, and alternatives to cyanide to separate out metals, and closing mines using bioremediation/phytoremediation
- reducing emissions by managing dust and sequestering particulates and carbon
- reducing water use through reuse and filtration, wastewater processing, tailings remediation and desalination
Mining companies also find that using these technologies leads to higher job satisfaction (employees have worry less about getting sick, for example) and mitigate social justice tensions (companies have less chance of being sued).
The mining industry has a weak track record on innovation. In 2012, companies spent a mere 0.2% of revenue on technology research and development, estimates Kachan. Other industries invest as much as 30%.
But with their bottom lines at risk, more mining companies apparently are reconsidering that position.
“New technology – like bioremediation or electrochemical water treatment – has historically struggled to find footholds in mining because companies generally don’t like taking the risk of adopting new, unproven technology until others have,” notes Kachan. “That attitude is now changing, as companies are increasingly motivated by the dramatic new economic benefits promised by new breakthroughs in green mining.”