For decades to come, high school principal-turned-Resources Minister, Scott Stewart, wants to see young Queenslanders excitedly planning a career in a resources industry that offers high wages, secure, safe jobs, and opportunities to make the world a better place.

“I’ve spent years as a teacher working with young people, hopefully equipping them for the future and opening their minds to the range of opportunities open to them,” he said. “As Resources Minister, that remains a passion, which is why Queensland’s new 30-year plan for its resources industry is absolutely crucial.

“The industry needs these future workers to prosper, our regional communities need the jobs and business that resources projects bring, and the world needs our mineral and energy resources. “The Queensland Resources Industry Development Plan charts a course for everyone to work together to transform our resources industry so it continues to create jobs and prosperity – responsibly and sustainably.”

After more than 18 months in development, the plan was released mid-year with a 2022-23 State Budget that included an injection of almost $40 million for the state’s emerging critical economy minerals sector, with a goal of building a long-term pit-to-product industry. Mr Stewart sees critical minerals – which includes exciting new opportunities in the rapidly expanding global market for critical minerals – as key to the industry’s future.

“The resources industry has long been one of the cornerstones of Queensland’s economy, generating jobs and prosperity, particularly, in regional Queensland,” he said. “However, economic, environmental and social forces are changing our world. History shows that success lies in anticipating and embracing these changes.

“Happily, Queensland’s resources industry has demonstrated that capability over decades, through cycles of gold, base metals, coal, and LNG. “The next cycle is critical minerals, like our existing strengths in copper, and emerging new opportunities in vanadium; the minerals the world needs to decarbonise and meet its target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

“Queensland has the minerals underground and the renewable energy above ground. We have the human resources and innovation capability to mine, process and manufacture those minerals sustainably. “With the commitment of industry and government, working together, Queensland’s resources industry will transform, diversify, and continue to thrive in a twenty-first century decarbonised world.”

Coal and gas

Although the global market for thermal coal is declining as the world decarbonises, Mr Stewart said steel-making metallurgical coal will remain a strength for Queensland for decades to come.

Metallurgical coal makes up 85 per cent of the value of Queensland’s exports, and the Minister is confident that its quality and relatively low emissions profile, as well as progress in reducing emissions on mine sites, will help maintain this product’s global competitiveness.

The Minister sees gas continuing to perform the important role of enabling renewable energy investment both at home and abroad by providing grid reliability and security. Gas is also a vital feedstock for a range of domestic manufacturing processes. The Queensland Government has been supporting the growth in domestic supply and is looking to do more, such as by investigating a potential new gas pipeline in the Bowen Basin.

“There’s opportunity ahead for gas companies to become diversified energy providers by investing in low emissions gases like hydrogen,” Mr Stewart said. “The industry could apply its expertise in gas supply to support the development of our new hydrogen industry, which is a key priority for this Government.” But the message is clear for the long term.

“We have to diversify to ensure that we continue to create jobs and business opportunities for Queenslanders,” he said. And the big prize Queensland has its eye on is its emerging new economy minerals sector.

Critical minerals

Mr Stewart pointed to Queensland’s accessible, quality deposits of critical minerals, including copper, lithium, vanadium. “Our North West Minerals Province is particularly rich, and already serviced by transport infrastructure after decades of base metals operations at Mount Isa,” he said.

“The next exciting development is the potential for a vanadium hub at Julia Creek, where Multicom Resources is developing the $250 million Saint Elmo mine.” Multicom, QEM Limited, Vecco Group and Alumtek Minerals have formed the Queensland Vanadium Consortium to advance a new sector producing vanadium – a mineral fundamental to producing super lightweight steel now, but with a big future in vanadium redox flow (VRF) batteries for electricity grids.

The Queensland Government has already committed at least $10 million for a common- user critical economy mineral processing plant in Townsville, initially for vanadium miners. The northern port city is already the transport hub for most of the North West’s resources outputs.

The State Budget has also put serious dollars behind critical mineral development, including:

♦ An additional $17.5 million over four years for exploration. This takes the state’s total investment over five years to $22.5 million to find the future mines producing the minerals and metals that the world needs

♦ $10 million over two years for geoscientific research to find out more about identified deposits and potential new ways to mine them ♦ $5.7 million over three years to the Resources Centre of Excellence in Mackay to expand its existing training and business incubation service to support critical minerals projects

♦ $5 million over two years for research to better define Queensland’s critical minerals potential

♦ $1.59 million to make mining and exploration assessment and approvals more efficient

New from old

As they say, if you wait long enough, everything comes back in fashion. The same may be the case for some of Queensland’s closed and abandoned mines. Changing technology, and new uses for minerals that didn’t exist previously, mean some of the state’s old mines could be commercially feasible again.

With about 120 complex abandoned mine sites across the state, the Queensland Government is keen to establish if at least some of them have realistic re-commercialisation potential in their tailings storages, stockpiles or remaining in-ground resources. The Government has started work on a pilot release of a high-priority abandoned mine site with re-commercialisation potential.

Initially, the Government is looking at a site that includes the former Wolfram Camp and Bamford Hill mines about 130km west of Cairns in Far North Queensland. Despite being an old site, Wolfram Camp still has potential commercial deposits of tungsten and molybdenum – two in-demand critical minerals. A market sounding exercise earlier this year found keen interest from industry in recommencing resources activities at the sites.

Current plans are for expressions of interest to be called later this year for companies to explore or mine in this area again and hopefully bring the former Wolfram Camp and other prospective targets in the area back to life.

People power

Mr Stewart recognises that human resources are also fundamental to successful transformation and diversification. “Queensland needs to be workforce ready, and that is why the Government is working alongside industry to develop a resources-specific workforce plan,” he said.

“We want to ensure Queenslanders can seize job opportunities emerging through new technologies and digitalisation, and that the industry can source the skilled workers it needs. “Part of that is also increasing diversity in the workforce itself, attracting Queenslanders from a broader range of backgrounds, identities and cultures. “Young people coming into the workforce today aren’t just focused on pay packets.

“They want flexibility in their workplaces, a career in purposeful work, and they are more aware of inclusiveness and the value of diversity than in the past. “If we want to attract the next generation of resources workers, this is what we need to offer, along with, first and foremost, safe and healthy workplaces.

“Companies with a diversity of employees – women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, defence force veterans and people with a disability – gain a diversity of perspectives that brings new and innovative ways of doing things.”

A big focus in Australia’s most decentralised state is keeping jobs in regional communities. Some areas of Queensland, like Mount Isa and the Isaac region, were originally established decades ago on the back of mining.

“At the same time, we want to ensure new technologies and automation do not see jobs leaving regional communities,” Mr Stewart said. “By providing the right training locally, to local people, we can help protect and grow our regional communities, regional jobs and regional economies.

“There’s a lot of great work already underway that we can build on; for instance, we have the Queensland Minerals and Energy Academy, a joint effort by the Queensland Resources Council and Government introducing school students and their teachers to the career opportunities in the industry.”

To help drive next generation recruitment – ensuring skills will meet need, and jobs stay local – a working group is being established with industry, training providers, workers’ representatives and government to develop an industry workforce plan.

Social licence

Maintaining social licence will be just as critical in 30 years’ time as it is today. “Community expectations continue to change, and operators are going to have to continue to form long-standing mutually beneficial relationships,” Mr Stewart said.

“Shareholders as well as communities are directing increasing attention to social and corporate governance, on top of the global environmental focus. “Most Queensland and Australian companies are doing this well, but there is always room for improvement.”

Red tape

The Minister said the Government will also look at its own regulatory efficiency and the 2022-23 State Budget is putting $1.59 million behind making mining and exploration assessment and approvals more efficient. The independent Queensland Law Reform Commission will also start a wide-ranging review for mining objections and review processes in 2023.

The Minister said exploration activity is already on the up in Queensland, with applications for mineral exploration permits climbing steadily for the past couple of years. “This is the most activity in a decade and on current trends we could hit an all-time high this year,” he said.

“In fact, ABS statistics released at the end of August show the value of mineral exploration hit an all time high in the 12 months to June 30 with a total of $334 million invested in looking for minerals in the Sunshine State. “That’s a whopping 44 per cent up on the previous year,” Mr Stewart said.

But industry feedback makes it clear there’s more to be done. Mr Stewart said the plan is to reconsider and update the current land release practice, where upcoming coal and gas competitive tenders and their timing are flagged in a Queensland Exploration Program.

The model is under review, including tender timing and frequency, as well as ways to streamline decision making and reduce timeframes.

“Government is also considering something new, and that’s adding highly prospective mineral areas to the exploration plan,” Mr Stewart said. Consultation was underway at the time of publishing and will be finalised in the current financial year.

Queensland Mineral and Energy Academy workshop at Ayr.

The end game

Mr Stewart felt a strong sense of history as he enthused about the resources industry’s future. “My great grandfather, Wally Davidson, was one of the original Mount Isa mine workers in the 1920s,” he said. “My late brother managed the Lady Loretta Mine near Mount Isa.

“My electorate is full of mine workers and families who rely for their livelihoods, directly or indirectly, on the resources industry. “I’d like to think that there’ll be good, secure opportunities in resources for my great grandchildren, their mates and their families because of the work we’re doing now.”

Queensland’s resources industry, circa 2050

The 30-year-old plan identifies six key focus areas and imagines the state in 30 years’ time.

1. Grow and diversify the industry

♦ Critical minerals are being mined, processed, and manufactured in Queensland

♦ Queensland is the global supplier of choice for premium commodities that are critical for low-emission technologies, supporting global decarbonisation

♦ The mining technology (METS) sector is solving many global industry problems and is a major contributor to the Queensland economy

♦ Efficient exploration is driven by world-class data and digital technologies, including real-time digital earth visualisation

♦ Queensland’s traditional resources strengths of coal and gas have remained globally competitive for longer by decarbonising their operations and taking advantage of new pockets of demand growth in fast growing Indo-Pacific economies

2. Strengthen ESG credentials and protect the environment

Queensland’s resources industry is known globally as an environmental, social and governance (ESG) leader and recognised as safe, high-wage, environmentally responsible, and well-regulated, with a strong focus on genuine partnerships with First Nations peoples and sustainable community legacy.

The industry has taken decisive action to decarbonise operations and is leading the way in transparently demonstrating independent ESG credentials. Queensland’s resources companies have transformed from mainly mining to being leaders in materials handling throughout the circular economy. The industry is a leader in disassembly technology and recycling. The industry is consistently seeking to exceed regulatory requirements to ensure maximum community and environmental benefit from their activities.

3. Foster coexistence and sustainable communities

Local communities have benefited from years of coexistence with resources companies operating in their region. Projects have ended but left a positive legacy in their regional host communities. Mine rehabilitation and post operations are providing local benefit, as sites have been converted to their highest and best social, economic, and environmental use.

4. Ensure strong and genuine First Nations partnerships

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are true decision-making partners in resource projects taking place on Country, and are realising economic benefits as equity partners, owners, and operators. The resources industry continues to recognise, protect, and conserve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ cultural heritage through strong partnerships and meaningful engagement.

5. Build a safe and resilient future workforce

Queensland’s resources industry employs more Queenslanders, providing high-wage, highly skilled, safe and fulfilling careers. The resources industry is diverse and inclusive, representing host communities and providing careers that young people want to pursue.

While the workforce, mechanisms and methods used for mining will have fundamentally changed, the industry will have prepared workers to take advantage of the benefits of automation and digital innovations.

6. Improve regulatory efficiency

Queensland is benefiting from risk-based, efficient, effective, and transparent regulation that ensures the state’s resources are explored and developed in the public interest. Regulation is contemporary and insights-driven.

To see the plan, visit https://www.resources.qld.gov.au/qridp

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