SA Mines and Energy Journal : October-November 09
8 OCTOBER/NOVEMBER 2009 SA MINES & ENERGY JOURNAL INDUSTRY DEVELOPMENTS All eyes are on plans for the biggest mining project this country has ever seen, and the world's largest uranium mine. The Olympic Dam draft environmental impact statement (EIS) alone is 4600 pages and this has been under scrutiny since its release in May. More than 4000 submissions on the proposed expansion were received by the time the public display period ended on August 7. Among the submissions are those from the South Australian and Northern Territory governments, describing aspects they have found wanting. According to the SA Government, none of these issues are "deal-breakers" , but there's no denying the competing pressures on government. The state can't afford for this project not to proceed. The expansion is huge and the potential benefits to the South Australian and national economy are immense. The existing Olympic Dam underground mine currently produces around 180,000 tonnes of copper, 4500 tonnes of uranium and 100,000 ounces of gold annually. If approved, the expansion is expected to increase the yield to 750,000 tonnes of copper, 19,000 tonnes of uranium and 800,000 ounces of gold. But how can the Government approve such a project in the current political climate? We are living in an era with unprecedented public concern about environmental issues. The State Government's strategic plan states the objective to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40 per cent of 1990 levels by 2050. An inconvenient truth for the State Government is that the environmental footprint described by BHP Billiton in its EIS was never going to slip under the radar. Key issues arising from the consultation included concerns about brine discharge from the proposed desalination plant, greenhouse gas emissions, the proposed design of the tailings storage facility, and the effect on ground water, air pollution and transport infrastructure. BHP Billiton plans to power its desalination plant wholly by renewable energy, but the mine itself will require a significant increase in power. The current mine is already the state's largest user of power, and the expanded mine will increase South Australia's power consumption by up to 15 per cent. All other things being equal, the state's greenhouse gas emissions will increase from 31 mega tonnes per annum, by between 4.1 and 4.7 mega tonnes. This is a lot of extra power to source and a lot of emissions to offset. BHP Billiton says Olympic Dam will be the most energy- efficient operation of its type in the world and will minimise carbon emissions through the capture of waste heat on site to be used to generate clean energy. In addition, the company has committed in the draft EIS to matching the Government's 2050 target. BHPB's water requirements will increase five-fold. The proposed desalination plant at Whyalla is one of the proposals in the EIS criticised by the public and it has come under intense scrutiny by the Government. While BHP Billiton believes its preferred site at Point Lowly is the best location for environmental reasons, others are not convinced. Locating a desalination plant further away on the west coast will inevitably impose greater cost on the company, and may require further consultation. It is interesting that public objections to uranium and the implications of the mineral through its life cycle appear to have diminished over the years, yet this has been more than surpassed by concern about in the environmental impact of mining. At a time of domestic water restrictions and increasing power costs, it is not surprising people feel cynical about what might be perceived as favourable treatment for BHP Billiton. Critics say that the multi-billion-dollar project can afford to do more to reduce its environmental footprint. The issues themselves are not unexpected, but the sheer scale of the project and corresponding scale of the environmental impacts will challenge the regulators. So how far will the Government go in requiring BHP Billiton to address community and government expectations? And will world best practice be good enough? BHP Billiton will submit a supplementary EIS, probably next year, and the relevant South Australian, Commonwealth and Northern Territory ministers will subsequently make a decision whether to approve the proposed expansion. Economics aside, we are coming up to a state election and then a federal election, and the Government will be unable to overlook public sentiment. Depending on BHP Billiton's response, the Government may find itself caught between achieving its environmental goals and giving approval to a project that will bring great economic rewards, but still falls short of public expectations. BHP Billiton already makes big investments in research and development, and supports a range of programs and institutions. With enough corporate and political will, this project could set a new, higher standard internationally. Dammed if we don't In an era of carbon pollution reduction, how will the State Government rationalise approval for the biggest mining project we've seen? Anne Walker, SACOME Director Industry Marketing, reports.