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- The mining industry must prioritize two-way communications with the local communities in which it operates. Having their support will depend on how they are affected by the mine’s activities and whether they are informed or engaged regularly on the mine’s development.
- With the long lead time it takes to bring a mine to production, Canada’s stricter regulatory environment can be a competitive advantage if it delivers certainty. This certainty needs to be communicated effectively to companies, investors and shareholders. From exploration to consultation to the approval of the environmental assessment work, stakeholders want to invest in projects that have clear goal posts.
- The Canadian mining industry must do more to market its leadership in environmental protection. This means sharing our success stories in action, recognizing people for exemplifying these values, and working with partners who share them.
The Canadian mining industry will succeed if we can generate social and political support for our mining projects. The next step forward for leaders, including our Prime Minister, is to see the mining sector as a positive for Canada, instead of a persona non grata in need of strict regulations.
How would you define a “sustainable mine”? When speaking about sustainability in mining, what are the biggest risks mining companies must manage regarding environmental and social impacts?
A sustainable mine advocates for the region in which it operates. It’s about improving both the efficiency of its operations and its social license to mine.By now, most Canadian mining companies have environmental and social initiatives. They’re cutting carbon emissions, reducing waste, and otherwise enhancing operational efficiency. However, these efforts are still not enough to develop a sustainable mine if it doesn’t engage with local communities.
Communities are part of a broader social and political system and should have a voice in crafting the key conditions and responsibilities a mining company commits to in order operate in their region. Right now, the mining industry doesn’t do enough to engage with local communities, which is one of the biggest business risks, no matter how much a project can seem like a hit.
“A sustainable mine advocates for the region in which it operates. It’s about improving both the efficiency of its operations and its social license to mine.”
In general, the mining industry must address three main publics. The first two comprise those who are strongly inclined to support mining and those who are strongly inclined to oppose it. The third group is the majority in the middle, whose positions lie somewhere in between these extreme points of view. They are waiting to hear what mining companies have to say and it should be an industry priority to open a dialogue with them. Their support will largely depend on how they are affected by companies’ mining activities and whether they are informed or engaged on a regular basis.
From our own experiences at Vale, it was essential to engage with local communities to operate in a UNESCO World Heritage site in New Caledonia. We established a formal agreement with the local Indigenous communities called The Pact for Sustainable Development of the Deep South, which made Vale accountable to create and implement specific measures to support the sustainable development of the region.
“The mining industry doesn’t do enough to engage with local communities, which is one of the biggest business risks, no matter how much a project can seem like a hit.”
The formal agreement established three entities: the New Caledonia Vale Foundation, the Customary Environmental Advisory Committee (CCCE) and the Reforestation Association. These structures support socio-economic, environmental and cultural community projects in the region and guarantee the participation of the communities in the environmental monitoring of Vale in New Caledonia. For example, eight technicians from tribes in the South Province were trained at the University of New Caledonia and integrated into our workforce upon graduation. As for the Reforestation Association, it is responsible for the revegetation of degraded areas, related and unrelated to our operations. The engagement of the Indigenous communities is central to eliciting feedback on how well Vale is meeting expectations, the quality of its communications, and what we can do to improve them.
Can Canada’s stricter regulatory environment and the emphasis it places on sustainability be seen as a competitive advantage in the global mining industry?
It can, and it has the potential to. A good, healthy regulatory environment protects public interest, the natural environment, and it also drives responsible development.Today, Canada’s expertise in sustainable mining, as well as its political stability, has set us apart as an attractive investment destination. These elements have established a great foundation because industry wants political and environmental certainty to incentivize investment.
One thing we have to do as a country and as an industry, is make sure we deliver that certainty, and deliver the environmental and social protection based on sound science. If we want shareholders and investors to commit to our mining industry for the long term, we need to provide them with information that justifies their investment. There is a long lead time involved in bringing a mine into production. It can be up to 10 years. From exploration to consultation to the approval of the environmental assessment work, investors want to support projects that have clear goal posts.
“A good, healthy regulatory environment protects public interest, the natural environment, and it also drives responsible development.”
Not surprisingly, if restrictive regulatory environments go too far and the rules are not clear, it will be seen as a competitive disadvantage in the global mining industry. When the rules change without consensus across the country, it’s very hard for companies to drive investment into their mining projects.
I’ll give you an example that impacted our operations in Ontario. In the past, the federal government reduced the allowable emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2), which is generally a by-product of industrial processes and the burning of fossil fuels. In response, Vale completed a CAD $1 billion Clean AER (Atmospheric Emissions Reduction) Project. It included the installation of new converters in the smelter, a new wet gas cleaning plant, a new secondary baghouse and a fan building. The project, which began construction in 2012, reduced SO2emissions from Vale’s smelter in Copper Cliff by 85%, reduced metals particulate emissions by 40%, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions from the smelter by 40%. In fact, the project made our iconic superstack obsolete and its decommissioning is underway. It will be replaced by two smaller and more efficient stacks.
“When the rules change without consensus across the country, it’s very hard for companies to drive investment into their mining projects.”
While this project was in construction, there was a new announcement, this time by the Provincial Government of Ontario. It introduced a new fence line standard for SO2based on modeled outcomes rather than monitored outcomes. In other words, it established a standard based on unrealistic forecasts of what could happen rather than what we were actually experiencing. The new targets were out of reach for Vale and others, even after our CAD $1 billion investment. Today, we’re working with the government to develop a technical standard that addresses the issue. But it’s these kinds of discussions inside a company that sometimes weigh the day on whether to invest in country A, B, or C.
How can Canada increase its global leadership position on the environmental protection front?
In my opinion, the Canadian mining industry should already be recognized for its efforts to embrace sustainability. Yet, there are a lot of good things being done across the Canadian mining industry that people don’t know about. If it’s not in people’s backyard, then they don’t pay attention to it. This lack of awareness loops back to the importance of engaging with local communities to highlight the Canadian mining industry’s environmental performance and communicate it effectively.
The Canadian mining industry has to do a better job of marketing itself to increase its global leadership.And by marketing, I don’t mean spending. I mean, sharing our stories in action, recognizing people for exemplifying the right values and working with partners who share them.
“The Canadian mining industry has to do a better job of marketing itself to increase its global leadership.”
Compared to other industries, mining is often treated like a persona non grata in Canada. This needs to change. Our industry will succeed if we can generate social and political support for Canadian mining projects. The next step forward for leaders, including our Prime Minister, is to see the mining sector as a positive for Canada, instead of a persona non grata in need of strict regulations.
The Mining Association of Canada awarded Vale’s Sudbury Operations with a 2018 Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) Excellence Award for its innovative sustainability projects. What is Vale’s approach to sustainability? How can these principles be extended to the wider Canadian mining industry?
A sustainable mine must commit to leaving behind a net positive legacy. The region in which it operates should be better off than it was before it began its activities, meaning that the company is responsible for closing and reclaiming the site of its shut-down mines and returning the land to reusable and stable standards, including addressing any environmental impacts.
“A sustainable mine must commit to leaving behind a net positive legacy. The region in which it operates should be better off than it was before it began its activities.”
Although Vale’s Sudbury Operations is not at the shutting down stage, the team is doing a lot of work to protect, maintain and restore the region’s biodiversity. Their efforts include applying grass seed, lime and fertilizer to inaccessible areas through an innovative aerial seeding program, stocking lakes and rivers with fish, raising honeybees and planting milkweed to promote pollination. They also recently won an award for using biosolids in the tailings area, which promotes vegetative growth and acts as a fertilizer, while also ensuring dust control.
Before activating these efforts, our team in Sudbury did a comprehensive study of the soils and metals found in the area. These are not typical activities people associate with mining, but our approach to biodiversity is a source of pride to our employees. Vale’s Sudbury Operations has been in operation for a century and the emissions it generates today are about 1% of what they used to be.
“The key to a sustainability project is engagement. A mining company can’t embark on initiatives on its own. It must partner with the local municipal government, academic institutions and even other mining companies.”
A lot of the work that was done in concert to promote these activities also enhanced civic pride.Years ago, people used to refer to Sudbury as a moonscape. Now it’s referred to as a benchmark in how to reclaim and re-vegetate a region. Decisively, as someone who grew up in Sudbury and committed the first 18 years of my career there, I can say that the key to a sustainability project is engagement. A mining company can’t embark on initiatives on its own. It must partner with the local municipal government, academic institutions and even other mining companies.
Do you see a connection between the sustainability of mine sites and the desirability of the products they produce?
Definitely! More and more metals customers are looking behind the curtain and inquiring about supply chains and not just the end product. They expect more transparency, honesty and tangible global actions from mining companies.One of the clearest connections I have seen is within the nickel business—the base metals business—which is expected to advance the development and deployment of electric vehicles. Nickel is the portion of the electric vehicle battery that maintains the charge and allows the vehicle to go a further distance with a single charge. We are now seeing consumers ask: “What’s the life cycle of that nickel coming to the market?”
“More and more metals customers are looking behind the curtain and inquiring about supply chains and not just the end product. They expect more transparency, honesty and tangible global actions from mining companies.”
In a similar vein, the connection between our finished product and sustainable green technologies generates high employee engagement; they feel like they are contributing to fighting climate change. Now, we know that the market destination for our product is not enough to make us a “green company.” So, to align sustainable values with our operations, we had to change the way we do things on site too, and we are now testing electric load haul dump vehicles in our mines as one example of that.
Further, I expect more investment to follow from this alignment with sustainable values.In the past, investors solely expected a return on their investment. But today, their expectations are transforming; they are paying attention and they are acting on these priorities. Most investment leaders take meaningful steps to integrate sustainability and responsible development into their investing criteria. They want to invest in responsible development with a cause. They want to know the materials a company provides to the world are sourced responsibly. This makes a world of difference and shapes a clear value proposition for the Canadian mining industry.
Part of the Future of Mining Series presented by