Mining can be “green,” and ore can be “liquid.” Sounds too good to be true? Not according to a recent study by Oxford scientists. Just a matter of time, I believe, for this to happen. Given the necessity of mining in the digital age, coupled with the quick pace of technological advancement, green mining and liquid ore may yet become the standard in extraction by the next decade.
The shift from fossil fuel to electricity to power transportation is already driving the demand for metals like copper. The demand for batteries and other components for the production of energy from renewables like wind and solar is also pushing up demand for metallic and non-metallic minerals. There is correlation between mining output and renewable energy production.
So, with the shift to renewables to cut down on emissions, and the greater investment emphasis on ESG (environmental, social, and governance) issues, and how mining seems to be related to all this, then isn’t it just a matter of time when the industry will also need to turn “green” by sourcing ore and minerals from liquid and not solid earth?
President Rodrigo Duterte issued Executive Order No. 130 on April 14 to lift the nine-year moratorium on new mining contracts. He opted not to wait for new legislation that was supposed to set the terms for taxes and royalties, among others, for the mining industry. As we now review the rules for mining, we should already bear in mind the possibility of green mining in the future.
Opening up new mining sites is a step in the right direction, given that the economy is in trouble and the country is in dire need of new investments. But the government should go beyond “[maximizing] government revenues and share from production, including the possibility of declaring [mining] areas as mineral reservations to obtain appropriate royalties.”
Moving forward, I believe the government should also ban the export of raw ore, and require local processing prior to sale of minerals abroad. I also support sustainable development, and believe that we should strive to find a balance between environmental and economic interests by making sure that mining is done sustainably and responsibly.
And this is why the Oxford study matters. It points to the possibility of extracting from “brine mines,” and how this can become a reality in the next five to 15 years. Given this, existing rules should be reviewed in light of what we hope to achieve with the local mining industry in the next five to 10 years. Rules should pave the way for green mining by the medium term.
In a press announcement, the University of Oxford said that scientists from its Department of Earth Sciences have demonstrated how it was “possible to directly extract valuable metals from hot salty fluids (‘brines’) trapped in porous rocks at depths of around two kilometers below dormant volcanoes.” Calling this a “radical green-mining approach,” the University said the proposed process could “provide essential metals for a net zero future — copper, gold, zinc, silver and lithium — in a sustainable way.”
If this technology can be harnessed and developed for commercial use in the next five years, I believe it points to good prospects particularly for local mining. After all, the Philippines is in the Ring of Fire and has numerous active and dormant volcanoes all over the country. This sounds particularly promising if open pit mining can be abandoned altogether in favor of volcano mining.
“Magma beneath volcanoes releases gases that rise towards the surface. These gases are rich in metals. As the pressure drops, the gases separate into steam and brine. Most metals dissolved in the original magmatic gas become concentrated in the dense brine, which in turn gets trapped in porous rock. The less dense, and metal-depleted steam continues up to the surface, where it can form fumaroles, such as those seen at many active volcanoes,” the university explained.
“Oxford scientists reveal how this trapped, subterranean brine is a potential ‘liquid ore’ containing a slew of valuable metals, including gold, copper and lithium, that could be exploited by extracting the fluids to the surface via deep wells… Their models show that the brines potentially contain several million tons of copper,” it added.
Oxford scientists noted that “copper is a key metal for making the transition to net zero, due to its importance in electricity generation and transmission, and electric vehicles.” And, as stated by Oxford Professor Jon Blundy: “Getting to net zero will place unprecedented demand on natural metal resources, demand that recycling alone cannot meet. We need to be thinking of low-energy, sustainable ways to extract metals from the ground. Volcanoes are an obvious and ubiquitous target.”
Then there is the additional benefit of extracting geothermal power as a “significant by-product of a green-mining approach, meaning that operations at the well-head will be carbon-neutral,” the study noted. “The prospect of extracting metals in solution form from wells reduces the cost of mining and ore processing, plus exploits geothermal power to drive operations. This vastly reduces environmental impact of metal production.”
More important to the Philippines is the study finding that “geophysical surveys of volcanoes show that almost every active and dormant volcano hosts a potentially exploitable ‘lens’ of metal-rich brine. This means that metal exploration may not be limited to relatively few countries as it is currently, owing to the ubiquity of volcanoes around the world.”
While there are plenty of challenges to pursuing green mining, I believe that this early it should already form part of the considerations of policymakers in reviewing Philippine laws and guidelines on extraction. New guidelines and incentives may be made time-bound, and conditioned on the introduction and use of new technologies that are green and sustainable.
Rapid changes in technological advancement usually outpace the change in policy and regulation. This does not have to be the case, always. Access to data and studies and information on new developments already give us foresight, and allow for better visioning and planning. Policy changes must always be strategic and not just tactical, with the far future always in mind.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council