By Sarah MacNamara, Assistant Editor, Mining Magazine

With tens of thousands of Australian mines awaiting rehabilitation and a new report estimating the closure of almost 240 Australian mines by 2040, it is more important than ever to explore innovative solutions for the mining industry to overcome closure challenges as it simultaneously leads the way in the path to net zero.

Mining has been a key element of Australia’s economic development since 1802 when the very first shipment of coal was exported. As the country has grown and evolved, so too has the mining sector.

With more mines across the country coming to the end of their lives and growing demand for innovative closure and rehabilitation solutions, Australia has the potential to become a global leader in the space.

Paving the way to net zero

Australia’s mining industry will play a critical role in achieving the Federal Government’s goal of net zero by 2050.

A greener future will require a change in the resources mined in Australia as priorities shift in favour of clean and renewable energy. This will mean the development of new mines and the retirement of old mines.

Mine closure is a normal part of the mine life cycle, however, it can have mixed impacts on the environment and on communities if not handled in accordance with standards and frameworks specifically designed to support mining closure and rehabilitation.

With limited examples of successful mine relinquishment and repurposing in Australia, there is a growing demand for solutions that support the mining sector to address accompanying challenges such as effective engagement with stakeholders, mineral and non-mineral waste, resource recovery and the physical condition of the mine site.

Providing solutions to such challenges and enabling smooth mine closures or transitions will assist the industry in achievingoptimal social, environmental and economic outcomes once a mine’s resources are no longer required.

Landmark mine closures report

CSIRO Futures, the strategic and economic advisory arm of CSIRO – Australia’s national science agency – works with forward-thinking industry and government organisations to tackle the industry’s most important challenges.

CSIRO partnered with the Cooperative Research Centre for Transformation in Mining Economies (CRC TiME) to develop a report that explores the growth opportunities for Australian businesses to supply equipment, technology and services-based solutions to address the challenges that mine closures present to the industry.

The report, Enabling mine closures and transitions: Opportunities for Australian industry, was released in November 2023.

CSIRO Futures’ Senior Manager, Dominic Banfield, said that CSIRO wanted to ensure the report was co-developed with industry to accurately reflect the current mine closure challenges and define clear opportunities for Australian business to help.

“We undertook targeted interviews and workshops with stakeholders between April and September 2023, engaging various participants across the mine closure and transitions value chain. This included mine closure practitioners, mine closure solutions (MCS) providers, government organisations, industry bodies, researchers, and thought leaders.”

Mr Banfield said that the insights from the consultations were supported by desktop research and further validated in two workshops.

“Our team also undertook novel economic and market sizing analysis to explore the potential scale of expenditure of mine closure and related markets in Australia. This analysis utilised mining industry databases, market research data, and input from industry experts.”

2040 forecast: ten per cent of Australian mines to close

The report identified almost 240 mines that are projected to close by 2040, which is more than ten per cent of the approximately 2,200 current operational mines across the country.

Mr Banfield said that mining is a temporary land use, and that every single mine across the country is destined to cease operations at some point.

CRC TiME’s CEO, Dr Guy Boggs, said that all mines are based on finite resources and with the wave of mining investment over recent decades, it is natural that some will be coming to the end of their lives.

“It’s also important to recognise that the report provides a point of time estimate, noting that mine life at individual sites may change based on new resource discovery, market changes and other factors,” Dr Boggs said.

The estimate is based on projected closure dates sourced from a market intelligence database.

Economic opportunity of mine rehabilitation and closure

The report highlights the importance and potential of Australia’s mine closure solutions industry.

It marks the first public release of information outlining the opportunities for Australian businesses to play a role in addressing mine closure challenges and aims to support industry growth by exploring the scope of the opportunities, the diversity of solutions required, and identifying enabling actions for industry development.

“This industry will be key to improving post-mining outcomes and capturing the economic opportunity associated with mine rehabilitation and closure,” Mr Banfield said.

CSIRO Futures’ Senior Manager, Dominic Banfield. Image credit: CSIRO.

Opportunities for growth

CSIRO has estimated that the projected closure of 240 mines in Australia will create over $4 billion of annual expenditure on the broad range of activities associated with mine closure and rehabilitation.

“This expenditure represents a demand for equipment, technology and service solutions that optimise mine closure and transitions to both reduce closure costs and create better environmental and social outcomes,” Mr Banfield said.

Dr Boggs said that a key takeaway of the report is the diversity, span and scale of services, technology and equipment that is required for mine closure.

In addition to the demand for rehabilitation solutions that ensure the long-term safety and stability of the site, the report also identified growing opportunities for solutions that:

  • Facilitate effective engagement and equitable partnerships with communities and other stakeholders
  • Apply waste hierarchy principles to reduce ongoing liabilities and generate value from mine waste
  • Facilitate the transition of mine sites to valuable postclosure land uses

The report identifies both existing and emerging opportunities, and highlights the ways in which Australian businesses can offer new and emerging solutions for the challenges that arise when mines close.

“Through focused consultations and workshops, the project identified collaborative actions for MCS providers, miners and the government to address barriers to the growth of Australia’s MCS industry,” Mr Banfield said.

Positioning Australia as an MCS leader

By utilising the potential of its industry to commercialise and export solutions and supporting best practice mine closures and transition outcomes, Australia has the potential to emerge as a prominent exporter of mine closure and rehabilitation expertise.

Mr Banfield said that a coordinated approach to unlocking the industry’s potential will be key to Australia becoming a global leader in MCS provision.

The report suggested that to position themselves for export success, MCS providers can develop cost-effective solutions with validated performance, interoperability across mine sites and alignment with global best practices.

Mr Banfield said that to foster this potential, Australia must create an environment that encourages innovation, supports the business development of SMEs and attracts new market entrants.

“Initiatives promoting collaborative investment in developing solutions for common challenges, along with opportunities to test and demonstrate these solutions, can be facilitated through joint efforts by both the government and the mining sector.”

Mr Banfield said that by leveraging its strong reputation as a mining nation with robust environmental standards and performance benchmarks, Australia can export locally developed solutions to countries that are anticipated to see substantial mine closure.

Mr Banfield said that exporting to countries such as China, Canada, the US, South Africa and Mexico, all of which are expected to experience increased mine closures in the coming decades, will “further establish Australia as a global leader in mine closure and rehabilitation services”.

Dr Boggs said that the report confirms there is a huge opportunity for Australia to leverage its world-leading METS sector to develop a distinct identity for local, Indigenous and Australian businesses delivering mine closure and transition solutions.

“From a CRC TiME perspective, we think the Australian Government’s commitment to develop a roadmap to grow the oil and gas decommissioning sector will be powerful and could present huge opportunity for the MCS sector.”

Mining transition solutions

The Enabling mine closures and transitions report also acknowledges an increasing need for mining transition solutions.

Dr Boggs said that the scale of development over recent decades means that demand for equipment, technology and services for activities to achieve positive outcomes at the end of mine life is growing.

“Indigenous and regional communities rightly expect that decisions by governments and companies about post-mining landscapes as well as investment to support local economic transformations will be made with them.”

Dr Boggs said another change is a broader rethink and recognition of the value of mine waste, mined lands and mining infrastructure for new purposes – for example, the reprocessing of tailings to extract minerals, or the numerous instances of pumped hydro energy production being considered in pit voids.

Mr Banfield said that CSIRO attributes the surge in demand for mine transition solutions to a number of factors, primarily stemming from increasing recognition of the importance of successful post-mining outcomes by the mining sector, community and government.

“Additionally, evolving community expectations for positive social and environmental outcomes are shaping regulatory requirements, industry best practices, and the decision-making of mining companies.”

Impact on industry

Mr Banfield said the report will hopefully raise awareness in the mining industry of the opportunities presented by mine closure and transitions, foster greater investment and support in solutions.

“This extends to providing greater support for existing and emerging mine closure solution businesses, both within the sector and across different industries which may offer viable solutions.”

Additionally, Mr Banfield said that CSIRO hopes the report will offer a clearer direction on how miners, MCS providers and the government can collaborate and align themselves, contributing to the creation of a sustainable industry.

“Fostering a sustainable mine closure solutions industry is crucial for establishing Australian best practices, industry cultures and frameworks that support innovative solutions, ultimately leading to positive environmental, social and economic outcomes.”

Dr Boggs said the response to the report has exceeded expectations, with inquiries from all over the world from people within and external to the sector.

CRC TiME has integrated the findings of the report into its work, particularly to highlight the scale of opportunity for regions, Indigenous communities and Australia in the shift from viewing mine closure as a requirement or liability.

Next steps

Mr Banfield said that the Enabling mine closures and transitions report can be used by stakeholders in industry, research and government that are unfamiliar with the opportunities and challenges of mine closure to identify ways that they could make meaningful contributions to mine closures and transitions.

Dr Boggs said that a critical step for industry is to see mine closure through a similar lens to project development, requiring a similar whole of-organisation approach and procurement policies that support innovation and the engagement of local, regional and Australian businesses.

Over the next 12 months, CRC TiME said it will be working with its partners and the broader industry and with governments and regional and First Nations organisations to raise awareness of the opportunities that exist in MCS and transitions.

Mr Banfield said that mine closure needs to be reframed as an opportunity and not just a liability and that doing so will protect the sector for a productive and effective future.

“This will be enabled by the growing community of passionate and skilled people solving the challenges of mine closures and transitions.”

Even with the projected closure of more than 200 mines in the next two decades, the mining industry remains at the core of Australia’s economy and an integral part of the nation’s transition to clean energy.

Closure is a key part of a mine’s life cycle and with demand for innovative solutions to closure and transition continuing to grow, Australia has the potential to become a global leader in MCS expertise.

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