The mood in Kalgoorlie this month was buoyant, and with good reason. Overall you would have to agree that the WA mining industry is in good shape. Prices for most minerals have picked up over the last few years, and this is being reflected in more profitable businesses, projects being developed and exploration budgets getting a boost.
Many of the bigger precious metals producers are talking up their ambitions to be sustainable, dividend paying businesses. The focus is on asset quality, and those assets that can’t perform will be cut in pursuit of new, more profitable opportunities. The biggest iron ore players are expanding, and jockeying for position to protect their access to export infrastructure.
As we have heard at recent forums such as the WA Mining Club, the smaller end of town is working very hard, sometimes without much success, to get the attention of investors who understandably are still a little risk averse.
The techy side of mining continues to generate excitement. For producers, constantly and rapidly improving mining and exploration software and systems, drone technology, and automation are already driving step changes in productivity and safety.
In markets, the charts displaying demand for rare earths, mineral sands, lithium and anything else that could find its way into a battery or electronic device should on first glance make investors swoon.
Despite the incredible progress that has been made in what is essentially the next phase of the electrification of the world, there are still many questions about which of the myriad of energy storage technologies will win, and the economics of getting WA product into these markets. We have some runs on the board, and there is tremendous upside if we can get it right.
Dreaming of downstream
Downstream processing of our minerals has again become a topic of discussion. In part this is driven by a desire by just about everyone in the mining industry to not just capture more value in WA, but to develop stronger protection against the cyclical nature of the industry.
Tianqi Lithium Australia is already well advanced in the construction of its lithium hydroxide plant in Kwinana, and Kidman Resources JV has selected Kwinana as a site for its own lithium processing plant. Questions remain about whether Kalgoorlie could be a suitable location for such a facility, given the infrastructure requirements and natural advantages coastal locations have.
Elephants in the room
Change is constant and some of us are more comfortable with this than others. The elephant in the room, that made it onto the pages of the West Australian in the lead up to the conference with the story of EY moving its function away from the skimpies, is the role of women in mining. Of 50 speakers at the conference, two were women. This is not a criticism of the conference organisers, it’s a simple, and poor, reflection of the make-up of the senior leadership of our mining companies.
If you are a young white bloke getting a start in the mining industry, you would look at that list of CEOs and be thinking your future prospects are pretty good. How are young women in the industry feeling about that?
The industry is not “doing nothing” about it, but the blokes in charge really need to look in the mirror and ask themselves – am I really, really, really serious about this?
The point of women in the mining workforce is thrown into stark relief with the emerging narrative that once again, we are in a skills shortage that’s going to get worse. If half the potential workforce feel less than absolutely welcomed into the mining industry, we are condemned to skills shortages and arguments about skimpies forever.
And its not just about covering shortages. As BHP’s Chief Technology Officer Diane Jurgens said earlier this month: “…our experience shows that our most inclusive and gender diverse teams perform better than the company average in areas such as safety, production, cost efficiency, employee engagement and mental health.”
There is plenty of evidence to back this claim up.
Related to skills shortages, there is a discussion in the industry about its image, and what should be done to make it more attractive to young people.
For what it’s worth, I don’t buy the argument that people don’t like mining because its seen as dirty, and therefore we need to change it. A lot of people like getting their clothes, and even their hands dirty. Who in our industry hates being stuck in the office all the time? Just about everyone. The opportunity to get into the great outdoors, and get a bit of wind and red dirt in your hair is surely a virtue in an age where people get sold dreams about going to Kakadu in SUV’s that in reality never leaves the tarmac. I say let’s make the most of it.
The other elephant
What we do need to address however is safety. Mining injuries and fatalities in WA are on such a slow downtrend they may as well be flatlining. I’m absolutely positive that this little part of our industry’s image is a major deterrent to many people.
The systems and processes in the industry uses to manage safety are world class, but compared to other sectors, and I’ll use oil and gas as an example, mining has a way to go in terms of improving its safety culture.
The safety journey never ends, and many of our companies are delivering world class safety performance. But many are not, and this is something we should all be in, together.