Mine geology ‘uplift’ key to smarter future: BHP’s Turnock

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Kerry Turnock, global practice lead - resource characterisation at BHP
Business risk and geoscientific knowledge locked together, geologist says

Technology has a role to play, but mining companies will need to start investing more in mine geologists and geological inputs to negate business risks linked to increasing orebody complexity and external cost pressures, according to an experienced BHP geoscience leader. Corporate decision-making tolerance “can’t exceed the tolerance of our geoscientific knowledge”, Kerry Turnock said at a conference this week.

“The changing landscape in our industry through emerging technologies, cost pressures coupled with changes in our society’s, and our own, expectations, with regards to the environment, social obligations and legislative requirements will see us asking more of our mine geologists,” she said.

Delivering a keynote talk at the AusIMM International Mining Geology Conference, 29-year industry veteran Turnock said “faster and smarter” total rock mass characterisation, multi-disciplinary decision making, near-real-time modelling and dynamic reconciliation, were vital to delivery of better, more timely information on which to base key decisions.

However, tomorrow’s potentially more complex, lower grade and deeper orebodies wouldn’t be delineated to the same level of certainty as today’s heterogeneous deposits without greater investment in knowledge, expertise and data.

“We cannot assume that today’s level of information can answer tomorrow’s questions,” Turnock said.

“Instead, we should be asking, what is the value of geoscientific information and how much do I need to answer the necessary questions to the level of risk we are willing to take?

“How much are we willing to pay for this information?

“The cyclical nature of our business coupled with perpetual KPIs to reduce cost per tonne often sees geoscientific work being reduced or deferred. It’s not an unfamiliar experience to any geoscientists in the room. However, front-end loading rock mass characterisation earlier buys us options and it’s these options that create, preserve or potentially destroy value.”

Turnock said ensuring skilled mine geology professionals got “access to the rocks”, as they had done in the past, was as important as it had ever been and arguably would become more critical.

“The role requirements placed on our mine geoscientists often reduce their time from being geological practitioners,” she said.

“If we are going to employ someone to be a mine geoscientist let’s enable them to practice geology.

“Managing people, safety, sampling, QAQC, grade control, projects reporting, training and putting out day-to-day fires take our geoscientists away from the geology itself.

“Between the lack of time, necessary safety measures and equipment or production density in localised areas, getting access to the rocks can be really hard.”

Turnock said rock mass characterisation was a key area of significant potential “uplift” in mine geology performance that would also be impacted increasingly by shifting industry settings.

“Resource characterisation informs all parts of our value chain,” she said.

“It influences … [the] performance of all stages of production, transportation and storage.

“Traditionally the focus of all geoscientists, not just the mine geoscientists, is to place the vast majority of their time and effort into delineating the economic portion of the resource. Comparatively speaking, far less effort is put into delineating the waste rock.”

Yet far more waste than ore was moved at most mines over their lifetime, she said.

“Changes in environment, social and legislative obligations will require our mining industry to be as accountable for the movement, storage of our waste tonnes as we are for our ore tonnes. The level at which we are going to have to quantify our past, current and future waste tonnage is only going to increase.

“Mine geology is going to be at the forefront when it comes to delineating these non-economic rock masses that are going to be disturbed by our mining activities,” Turnock said.

“For the mine geologists listening, I can hear your thoughts right now: how on earth can we characterise the attributes of waste when we don’t even have enough funding and/or resources or capacity to quantify the ore to the level that we’d like?

“Firstly, we need to consider how we can be smarter in our data acquisition and measurement primarily around sensor application in geophysics.

“Secondly, we will need to develop a value of information capability that demonstrates the decision value of geoscience itself.

“As I said [earlier], the tolerance of a vast majority of business decisions that are made cannot exceed the tolerance of our geoscientific knowledge.

“What we quantify and reconcile today and how we do it will directly impact tomorrow’s decisions.”

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