Mine Closure: Do we have what it takes?

Anna Littleboy, Strategist and Professor: Minerals, Sustainability and the 21st Century

Mine closure is the topic of the moment. The Mine Closure 2019 in Perth last month was booked out for weeks beforehand.  Why so and why now?

Ten years ago, the book “101 things to do with a hole in the ground” was published to a niche market of closure and sustainability practitioners.  It sold out, twice!  Centres of Excellence in rehabilitation ( for example the UQ Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation) have existed for much longer and for many years the major mining companies established specialist closure teams within their corporate structures. So why the fuss now when mine closure has been an integral part of mine planning for decades?

A quick trawl through the literature suggests two reasons for the rapid climb of closure up the risk radar. It is a fairly well accepted tenet that the bonds held to cover unincurred closure costs for operating mines are wholly inadequate. With numerous major Australian operations scheduled for closure in the next two to ten years (eg Argyle, Ranger, East Weipa, Gove, Rosebery, Telfer, Stradbroke Island sand mine, several operations in the Pilbara, Hunter Valley and Bowen Basin), this is a matter for concern.  State Governments hold unfunded abandoned mine liabilities of multi-billions of dollars [ii]. Frameworks are being tightened [iii] and financial instruments mobilized [iv] to secure funds to address risks from unclosed mines.

Secondly, examples of successfully closed mines can be found around the world [v]. So, too, can higher profile examples of poorly closed or abandoned mines [vi]. Therein lies a key issue. In our increasingly connected and integrated world, the concerns and risks highlighted by poor examples of, or lack of mine closure, dominate the discourse. Rightly so. We should all be holding poor performers to account and seeking to raise global performance across the board through the examples of leading practice. Together these issues are influencing the investor markets. A 2018 Senate Inquiry into Mining Rehabilitation [i] highlighted the lack of capacity to close mines as a challenge to both existing operations and future sector investment. Uncertainty in our ability to close mines is beginning to impact our ability to open them in the first place.

Neither of these issues can be solved solely by science and engineering.

Mine closure is a classic example of a “wicked problem” [viii]. A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve due to: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems. And wicked problems cannot be engineered away.

So do we have what it takes to deliver mine closure, around the globe too systematically high standards? I don’t know the answer to this. We certainly have high levels of skill in different aspects that require consideration in mine closure. We have amazing pockets of expertise available through industry, government, research institutions and in the community. But it still tends to be segregated along disciplinary lines, or steps in the mining value chain and it still seems to be arguing about which is the most important discipline.

What we don’t have, at scale, are pockets of connecting expertise that can look at the system interactions affecting closure and accept that wicked problems have messy solutions. Where are we training the leaders of the future to simultaneously understand how action in the plant impacts cost of closure and likelihood of closure impacts shareholder confidence? More significantly, how are we supporting these extraordinary individuals with decision tools that are sophisticated enough to simulate the whole system? And finally, how do we train and develop the next generation of closure professionals given declining interest in relevant subjects such as STEM, critical inquiry and social science?

There is opportunity here, should we have the foresight to grab it. Australia can aspire to lead in global service and technology provision to address an emerging $billion market in mine closure and succession. In February 2019, the Commonwealth Government published a National Resources Statement [vii], linking a need for long term rehabilitation and closure research to the development of regional environmental outcomes, engaged communities working through mining transitions and related export opportunities.

Addressing mine closure, systematically, repeatably and collaboratively with stakeholders will require new ways of thinking about how the mining system evolves, the skills and integrated disciplines required to develop solutions and the education and training required to develop closure professionals, tools and decision makers for a future where mines are closing faster than they are opening.
[i] 2017/18 Senate Inquiry into the rehabilitation of mining and resources projects as it relates to Commonwealth responsibilities
[ii] State of Queensland 2017:  Achieving improved rehabilitation for Queensland: addressing the state’s abandoned mines. Department pf Natural Resources, Mines and Energy.
[iii] State of Western Australia:  A framework for developing minesite completion criteria in Western Australia.  The Western Australia Biodiversity Science Institute
[iv] State of Queensland 2017:  Financial Assurance Review – Providing Surety. Queensland Treasury
[v] Roger Higgins, Mansour Edraki and Anna Littleboy  (2018). Planning for Positive Post-Mine Legacies in Planning for Closure 2018 conference proceedings, Santiago Chile September 2018
[vi] CV.Unger 2017 Legacy issues and abandoned mines Mining in the Asia-Pacific, 333-369
[vii] Australian Government National Resources Statement 2019
[viii] Brown, Valerie A. and Harris, John A. and Russell, Jacqueline Y; “Tackling wicked problems : through the transdisciplinary imagination” Edited by Valerie A. Brown, John A. Harris and Jacqueline Y. Russell Earthscan, London ; Washington, DC : 2010.