A long road lies ahead for the mining industry on its quest towards carbon neutrality, as established mines look for new and improved ways to reduce their environmental impact. However, some mines that are currently in development are looking to get ahead of the game.

Isabel Ellis talks to Dan Myerson, executive chair of Foran Mining, and James Whiteside, global head of corporate research at Wood Mackenzie, to learn more about the development of the first zero-carbon mines.

The fumes that spill out of mines have polluted more than the atmosphere. It’s the fact that they’ve also seeped into people’s heads, turning them against mining in all its forms, that is contributing to making climate change so difficult to solve.

As it stands, a five-fold increase in the supply of base metals is required to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

To many, 2.5°C sounds more like an apocalypse than a target, but we still need to unearth two and a half times as much base metals as we do today. This is necessary to keep planetary temperatures within that range.

For the most vociferous advocates for rapidly cutting carbon emissions, however, ‘mining’ doesn’t make them think of the copper, nickel and lithium necessary for greening the future, but the coal that put it in jeopardy.

Without more mines, there can be no energy transition – but to build more mines, miners need a clean break from their past. That means mining without emitting any greenhouse gases at all.

“The issue that we’ve got, as a society and also as a mining industry, is that to decarbonise and electrify the world you need mines,” explains Dan Myerson, executive chair of Foran Mining, which is developing the world’s first carbon-neutral copper project at McIlvenna Bay in Saskatchewan, Canada.

“But it’s a bit of an oxymoron, in that mining actually contributes a lot of greenhouse gas emissions to the world. We’ve got to find a way to mine responsibly and innovatively.”

The decarbonisation process

Here, in short, is the problem: mining is among the industries most vulnerable to the shift against carbon, while also being the one on which the entire energy transition turns. The copper that Foran intends to mine at McIlvenna Bay illustrates that central paradox better than any other mineral.

Wood Mackenzie estimates that ‘net-zero 2050’ will require an extra 19 million tonnes of the metal per year – almost double the current output – by 2040.

That would be exceedingly difficult even if the scope one and two emissions released by copper mining operations in 2019 weren’t higher than those associated with any mineral except coal.

More copper mines are urgently needed, but their current drawbacks are making them harder to fund and clear – and, once carbon is properly priced, considerably more costly – than ever before.

Nonetheless, while the use of coal necessarily releases carbon into the atmosphere, and it can’t be mined without fugitive methane emissions, it’s closer to the exception than the rule.

As James Whiteside, global head of corporate research at Wood Mackenzie, points out, “there’s nothing about mining, in most cases, that needs to be carbon emissive”. He lists three major determining factors for decarbonising – or, more accurately, the cost of decarbonising – mining operations: location, deposit type and technology.

Location is important in how it relates to power supply, which makes up roughly 60% of the emissions at a mine site, though that can vary greatly depending on the commodity being mined.

To date, the sustainability focus of most mining companies has been in bringing renewable power sources to what Whiteside calls “amenable” locations. “That’s where solar works, where wind works,” he adds. “And even with basic lithium-ion storage, in some cases, it’s a profitable venture: it has a negative carbon abatement cost.”

“There’s nothing about mining, in most cases, that needs to be carbon emissive.” James Whiteside, Wood Mackenzie

Even so, due to the intermittency of many renewable power sources, and the costs and limitations of current battery technology, it’s rarely possible – or, at least, economical – for mines in off-grid locations to get more than 50% of their power requirements from renewables.

McIlvenna Bay, however, happens to be plugged into to one of the world’s few fully renewable electric grids. “You’ve got to have clean power,” says Myerson. “That’s the biggest thing for mining, and it gives us a major head start in reaching carbon neutrality.”

Tall ambitions

Saskatchewan’s hydroelectric infrastructure is a significant part of the reason Myerson feels Foran’s work is, “honestly, not all that impressive”. Helpfully, more and more locations – Whiteside highlights Chile and Brazil – are beginning to replicate it.

“If you’re taking power from the grid, your carbon footprint is going to reduce over time,” Whiteside continues. “And a lot of mining companies are signing specific power purchasing agreements to make 100% of their power supply renewable.”

The second determinant, deposit type, directly impacts extraction method. As such, it accounts for coal’s unavoidable spew of fugitive methane, as well as the emissions currently associated with using high-pressure acid leaching to produce nickel.

Less directly, ore body also affects the cost and difficulty of decarbonising mining fleets, which cause another large proportion of scope one and two emissions in most mines.

Whiteside points out that it’s not yet possible to source electric trucks large and powerful enough to operate in many open-pit mines, although the smaller equipment required for underground operations is already easy to purchase and cheap to run.

In Myerson’s experience, the attention and investment companies like Sandvik, Epiroc and Caterpillar have put into electric equipment over the past five years has made assembling the fleet for McIlvenna Bay quite a straightforward task.

Even so, he agrees with Whiteside that smaller players simply don’t have the capital available to drive the third factor: technological development.

“If you’re Rio Tinto, you can develop your own inert anode technology,” says the WoodMac analyst, “but most junior, or even mid-tier, miners simply don’t have the capital available to invest over the long term in making some of these technologies economic.”

Rio Tinto is a particularly timely example, as the company recently announced a $7.5bn plan to halve its scope one and two carbon emissions by 2030. An important step for the industry, it was also bad news for the company’s share price.

Around the same time, Anglo American laid out a relatively detailed plan for achieving net-zero across all its operations by 2040, but, perhaps wisely, refrained from putting a dollar number next to it.

“Most of these projects are not economic at the moment,” explains Whiteside. “Some of the numbers are really eye-watering. They’re going to have to really, really invest, if we’re thinking in today’s costs – or those costs are going to have to come down significantly.”

Moreover, major operators are handcuffed by their ageing – and thus increasingly energy intensive – mine portfolios, not to mention the sunk costs of their emissive diesel fleets. Whiteside expects they will be phased out in the 2030s.

So, while majors may have the funds to develop and pilot specialised technologies over the next 20 years, it’s on the unencumbered juniors to make zero-carbon mining work before then.

“They’re going to have to really, really invest, if we’re thinking in today’s costs – or those costs are going to have to come down significantly.” James Whiteside, Wood Mackenzie

“In mining, no one wants to be first,” says Myerson, who used to run Glencore’s business in North America, “so you need companies like Foran to take on the risk. Then everyone will follow.”

Lead by example

And if others copy Foran, Myerson will feel he’s succeeded. Instead of thinking in terms of IP, the company has a policy of publishing all its findings online. “It’s not that innovative, because we’re really taking technology that exists in other parts of the world,” Myerson explains, linking Foran’s work to Tesla’s in the automobile industry.

“Everyone knew the technology was there for electric cars, but Tesla spent the time and money to make them affordable. Now they’ve advanced the technology so much that it’s being applied to mining trucks.”

That accounts for Foran’s fleet. For the rest, the company has built up a management team with broad experience and broader networks, and focused on engaging consultants with sustainability expertise from other industries.

To build a digital twin of the mine, for instance, Foran identified the best providers working in construction, talked them through mining, and then refined a model with the company best able to meet its needs. Still other technological advances came as complete surprises.

The decision to use hemp in McIlvenna Bay’s dry-stack tailings dam can be traced back to a chance conversation Myerson had with a friend who runs a cannabis business.

His contention that “cannabis sequesters four times more carbon than the rainforest” was borne out in Foran’s research (a recent Cambridge University study suggests hemp absorbs between 8–15t of CO2 per hectare, whereas forests typically capture 2–6t).

The research also revealed that hemp is an effective bioaccumulator of heavy metals and other toxins.

“We started reading up, and then we had to find specialists in the agri space for it,” explains Myerson. “After that, we partnered with research firms and processing metallurgy organisations to put it all together. It takes a lot of time, but it’s really just using our network.”

Rather than waiting for pre-packaged solutions for zero-carbon mining, then, Foran is concentrating on finding and porting relevant tools and technologies from other industries. So far, it looks like a very effective strategy for junior miners.

Whereas Rio Tinto’s announcement hurt its share price, Foran’s transparency has helped it attract funding. Though he doesn’t normally invest in mining, Prem Watsa – ‘the Canadian Warren Buffett’ – put $100m into Foran because, in Myerson’s words, “he understood the vision and the philosophy”. With Watsa’s money came his address book, which has only further expanded Foran’s all-important network.

Of course, Watsa also understood that there was money to be made. Expensive as clean technology might be, Foran is already exploiting new efficiencies that come from using it to boost profitability.

For one thing, switching to electric vehicles reduces ventilation requirements – slashing the cost of what has traditionally been the biggest operational expenditure for underground mines.

“We make no mistake about it, this is very much a business decision,” explains Myerson. “We want to show that you can make more money by doing the right thing. People mustn’t think that money isn’t important – particularly in the capital markets and in mining, that’s what will help it gather pace.”

Currently, it’s easier to make money designing and building a new carbon-neutral mine than it is by converting an emissive one. Equipment designed to run non-stop might not work with intermittent renewable energy sources in off-grid settings.

Similarly, as electric trucks are currently heavier and less powerful than their diesel equivalents, pre-existing mines may need to be reengineered with lower slope gradients or trolley assists able to provide extra power. Factoring these concerns in from the start is relatively simple, but they could almost double the cost of existing mines.

As a result, Whiteside believes junior miners building zero-carbon and carbon-neutral mines to provide the materials necessary for the energy transition will change the dynamics of the sector over the coming decade.

“When you look at [major miners’] portfolios, now and in 2030, they’re still going to be very much iron-ore centric. But, over time, they are going to look for acquisitions which position them better for the energy transition.

“For them to also hit the goal of reducing their overall emissions intensity, you can very much see those junior miners who managed to bring in zero carbon mines being extremely attractive to the major miners, and really picking up.”

At the same time, the juniors invested in achieving zero-carbon mining as quickly as possible are the ones giving the industry a chance to address its skills shortage.

Younger generations are wholeheartedly committed to stopping climate change – but they’re yet to realise just what it will take. More metals means more mines, and those mines need miners. Foran’s openness might mean it misses out on IP, but it’s hoping to unearth value elsewhere.

“What the world really needs is a good mining company – to make mining cool,” says Myerson. “Mining doesn’t really attract many bright people, or cool people. They’d much rather go work at Google or Facebook, or something like that.

“We’re trying to bring those brains to the industry and to our company, and to build up, hopefully, a major carbon-neutral mining company that supplies the critical minerals that the world needs.”

This article originally appeared in World Mining Frontiers winter 2021.