Responsible mining doesn’t have to be an oxymoron

Mining in the 21st century can deliver the goods and be more socially and environmentally acceptable, a new book shows

Dr Sara Bice, Melbourne School of Government, University of Melbourne

Dr Sara Bice

Published 17 August 2016

On Tuesday, mining major BHP Billiton announced its largest loss in corporate history. The US$6.4 billion loss relates to declining commodity prices, falling Chinese demand for iron ore and US$2.2 billion in after-tax costs for last year’s environmental disaster at its Samarco joint venture with Vale in Brazil. The financial figures are alarming.

Much commentary is rightly focused on what BHP’s full year report means for the company, its shareholders and the industry. But BHP Billiton’s very bad year should have us equally focused on environmental, social and governance implications.

More than a decade of social scientific research tells us that leading mining companies are adopting a more responsible approach to their work. And as I write in my just-released book, Responsible Mining, this shift is critical to staying in business. Good behaviour in environmental and social performance is regularly represented as risk management, a means to reduce costs of conflict while doing good. Adoption of corporate social responsibility principles and practices in the global mining industry is today so widespread it is institutionalised.

A driver inspects an earth mover at Fortescue Metals Group Ltd’s Cloudbreak iron ore operation in Western Australia. Picture: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg via Getty Images

But institutionalisation and prioritisation are different beasts.

What are the competing priorities in the current market environment?

There are a lot of clichés about the Australian economy. A lot of sheep’s backs and two speeds. In 2014, mining contributed 8.5% to Australia’s total output GDP. Jobs in the industry comprise about 2% of the Australian workforce, but this figure is controversial and far larger, given the industry’s extensive supply chain and use of contractors.

Much of the industry’s contribution stems from its exports, which rose more than 120% in the decade between 2000 to 2010, from $63 to $139 billion. In 2014, minerals and energy exports reached $195 billion. On a commodity-by-commodity basis, LNG is also playing a major role in exports, securing third place at $18.1 billion by end 2014.

For the Australian mining and extractives industry, the current environment marks a shift from boom and construction to maintenance and management. Yet Australia’s biggest miners, BHP Billiton included, remain so because of their long-term perspectives and their ability to anticipate and respond to risks, to predict and prepare for market shocks.

So, can we expect a finically struggling company and even an entire industry to attend to concerns beyond the financial bottom line? And if so, what would that look like?

The 21st century mining industry is one that cannot afford to focus only on pure financial strength. Today’s viability comes largely through reputation, legitimacy, acceptance (or at least tolerance) by communities, political acuity and social engagement.

Responsible mining involves holistic assessments of companies’ impacts, including on economic, social, human rights and environmental aspects, and on Indigenous communities. In the best cases, it involves understanding how an individual company’s impacts might contribute to accumulated impacts felt when multiple miners operate within a geographic region, like the Pilbara or Hunter Valley.

It prizes ethical decision-making and adopts emerging practices, including agreement-making processes like those at the Argyle Diamond Mine, in which signing communities are equal partners, have access to data and advice and secure ongoing monitoring and evaluation, in addition to working grievance mechanisms.

At the same time, responsible mining is not a licence to dig. While humankind will continue to require mining and extractives products well beyond our lifetimes, current knowledge also tells us that fossil fuels are beyond the bounds of responsibility and we must look to alternatives.

Responsible mining is geared to the long-term. As a result, it prioritises strong governance while also setting out clear boundaries for the company. Especially in developing countries where government capacity is limited or absent, mining companies with trucks and dollars must resist the urge to fill the gaps or take on inappropriate social development roles. Attention to appropriate boundaries encourages questioning and prudence in this area.

Hopeful examples from around the globe suggest that responsible mining will transform the 21st century mining industry. But there is also concern among social scientists that innovation in responsible mining practice may die out too soon. Attention is turning elsewhere before optimal gains have been achieved. And the current operating environment poses a considerable threat to the gains that have been won. Cases like BHP Billiton’s will test the sector’s commitment to and belief in the moral and financial value of mining focused beyond the profit margin.

Dr Bice is the author of Responsible Mining: Key Principles for Industry Integrity. The RRP is $45.60 and it is available here.

Banner image: Bucket wheel of a mining reclaimer moving stockpiled iron ore to conveyor belts in Western Australia. Picture: Auscape/UIG via Getty Images.

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