BHP exploration boss says mining needs more ‘front-end loading’

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BHP's Cam McCuaig: "Winners in the future may not be the winners of the past"
Future Mining Conference hears new geoscience paradigm is industry-wide challenge

Respected geologist and current head of BHP’s geoscience excellence centre in Western Australia, Cam McCuaig, says miners must accept the risk profile of the industry is changing and be prepared to invest more in “front-end loading” knowledge into project studies and operating plans or “we’re going to get smashed”.

McCuaig told the AusIMM International Future Mining Conference 2021 petroleum exploration companies might have to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in a single test well in deep-water offshore settings.

“So you better know what you’re expecting when you drill,” he said.

“How does the petroleum industry approach that? They approach it by front-end loading knowledge. They try to know as much about the rock mass as possible before executing the drill program.

“They can take an area the size of London, and with eight lamp posts light it up, and they do that by getting the most they can out of the drill holes, by doing a lot of petrophysics to match geophysical response to geology, and then by doing sensing of the whole rock mass; sensing the whole rock mass using geophysics, and in particular they use seismic.”

McCuaig, a geologist for more than 25 years who has worked around the world, said similarly, mineral exploration had to provide a better foundation for development and long-term planning than it typically had in the past. “When you think about how we characterise our mineral deposits, it’s still largely brute force,” he said.

“It’s largely by drilling and essentially making Swiss cheese of the rock mass.

“And I would put to you that to front-end load the knowledge we need to really embrace geophysics more; to see the unseen and quantify volumes of rock, not just [use] pencils in space, with all the inherent uncertainty, and deliver that knowledge and the uncertainty into the decision-making process.

“We still as an industry firefight a lot of challenges downstream in the value chain, realising we didn’t have the information we needed upfront. And so, front-end loading that knowledge in terms of being able to quantify earlier, better, what’s in the rock that matters, is the big challenge.

“How well are we doing? It’s variable. In some aspects we do pretty well in certain places. And in others it needs a lot of work. I think throughout the industry you see pockets of excellence in various aspects, but there are very few … I don’t know that there is any place that actually nails it all the way across the value chain.

“The ability to quantify uncertainty and to manage that uncertainty through the value chain, so that we understand the risks, make decisions, and know how we can invest to best reduce that uncertainty through the value chain, that is huge.

“If we can get there that will definitely change the way we make decisions in mining.

“In future I see us drilling to test our models rather than to build our models.”

McCuaig said some of the pressures and “challenges that are coming at us that will affect how we define ore into the future, and our ways of working” would influence the rate at which technologies were widely adopted to augment better systems and perhaps strategies.

But he doesn’t believe there is a “single silver-bullet technology”.

“I think the main thing is changing how we think. Number one, the risk profile of mining is changing. We need to accept that.

“Just as humans got really good at finding mineralisation if it outcrops – or at one point stuck out of the ground – that search space is depleting and the value is now under cover. New mineral districts will be under cover. Our current technology package is actually suited to near-surface discoveries, so we’re going to have to modify how we see the unseen better.

“When you put on top of it the challenges of access to land … hurdles that we have to exploration under cover are a lot larger [and] it’s much higher risk because it’s more expensive.

“When we look at how the industry is planning to mine future resources, in a lot of ways they’re planning to mine them the way they mined them in the past and I would put to you that’s probably not the way to go. If you look at our pits our highwalls are getting higher; we’re mining below water tables more. The future resources are going underground, big openpit mines are trending to mass mining underground.

“And all of this requires that we have a lot more knowledge upfront.

“The other thing is when you add the increasing social demands to have a smaller environmental footprint we’re going to have to be able to mine and get more extractable metal per tonne of CO2 we emit, per tonne of water that we use, per tonne of tailings that we produce, and per kilowatt hour of energy that we consume.

“If you look at how the industry is [currently] moving … the mantra that grade is king has actually been parked a bit to volume and size is king. People looking for these long-life assets are really moving towards lower grade, and lower grade means more CO2, more water, more energy per unit level extracted.

“And so the winners in the future may not be the winners of the past.

“And there will be a need to focus on higher quality resources as we move into an under-cover setting.

“Number two is [to accept that] we need to get knowledge earlier and we need to quantify it with uncertainty and manage uncertainty all the way through.

“If we accept these things the specific technologies that come in to enable us to do that could be many. But the thing is understanding those principles and accepting those principles.

“Because if we don’t, we’re going to get smashed.”


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