Canada is one of the largest mining nations in the world. According to Facts & Figures 2015 (produced by the Mining Association of Canada), Canada produces over 60 minerals and metals. The industry employs some 375,000 people and contributed $57 billion to the country’s GDP in 2014.
It is also one of several industries that may be impacted significantly by global climate change.
“We’re already seeing the impacts of climate change, such as the increase in temperatures and changes in rainfall intensity,” states Al Douglas, director of Climate Change Adaptation at MIRARCO Mining Innovation. “The mining industry does have it challenges when it comes to climate change, as do other industries.”
Douglas cites the example of tailings ponds as one area of mining operations that could be impacted by climate change.
“If we experience drier conditions, then it can lead to more dust and more oxidization of the tailings,” he says. “If we experience wetter conditions, it could mean overtopping of the dams.”
Those companies relying upon surface water for their processing activities or those who share assets (such as transportation and power) with local communities are also susceptible to changes in climate change.
“Changes in climate bring different kinds of impacts,” adds Douglas. “We will experience it in different ways. Drought in northern Ontario, for example, can create larger risks for forest fires. Too much rainfall may cause flooding, which can have an impact on open-pit mining. There are certain aspects within mining that are at greater risk to climate change.”
In the books
A 2009 study released by the David Suzuki Foundation, entitled Climate Change and Canadian Mining: Opportunities for Adaption, identified several examples of ways that the mining industry has shown its vulnerability to climate change. These include:
- A multi-year drought in Saskatchewan in the late 1980s that resulted in the Chaplin sodium sulphate mine nearly halting production due to reduced water levels;
- In 2005, a similar situation in Marathon, Ontario, resulted in several mines reducing water intake and finding alternative resources;
- Hot and dry temperatures in recent years have decreased the availability of water in southern Quebec, forcing gravel quarries to curtail production in order to abide by dust-suppression regulations;
- The 1998 ice storm cut off power to several mines in Quebec for three to four weeks;
- Warm winter temperatures in 2006 led to ice-road closures in the North West Territories, costing diamond mines millions of dollars for fuel and equipment to be transported by air;
- In 2008, heavy rains in the Yukon flooded four kilometres of the Minto mine access road and forced the company to release excess untreated water directly into the Yukon River system; and
- Lower water levels in the Great Lakes have necessitated smaller shipping loads of metals and non-metals.
“I think mining companies are beginning to appreciate that these challenges are becoming more significant,” states Douglas. “Our previous assumption that climate change is static was not correct. Companies now have to start thinking of how to incorporate these changes and how they can assess the risks.”
An industry in flux
Although climate change may be more top-of-mind today than ever before, it isn’t necessarily getting the recognition it deserves within the mining community. A survey of 26 Canadian mining companies, undertaken by the Mining Association of Canada and documented in a 2014 report entitled Climate Adaptation in the Canadian Mining Sector, found that one-third of those polled consider climate change a medium to low-level risk for their business operations.
Another one-third reported that they have committed resources to understanding how they will adapt their operations to deal with climate change, with the most common nature of the actions considered or taken having to do with engineering and design, followed by infrastructure upgrades, and changes to business procedures.
Of note in the survey is the fact that many companies believed there was a lack of information and tools related to the subject. A few companies reported difficulties in obtaining accurate and sufficient scientific data and the majority of respondents felt that better projections of future climate changes – along with information on climate change impacts – would be useful.
Another key finding of the study had to do with the role of government and industry. More than half of those surveyed said they would like to see better projections of future climate changes and impacts by region in order to predict the effects on their particular operations. They would also like to see examples of good practices, information on risk-assessment methods and tools; adaption-planning frameworks; and sample business cases.
There is also broad support for the government to play a larger role, including support for policies, incentives, and regulations for climate change to “de-risk” the mining industry.
The way forward
Despite the fact that climate change continues to be a major topic, it would appear the Canadian mining industry has not yet fully embraced the potential impacts of these potential events to their operations. The hope, however, is that this will change.
“There is a lot more attention in general being given to the topic of climate change and a lot of information is being shared between government and non-governmental organizations,” says Douglas. “But what has to happen is we have to have more sharing of this information and we need to see more adaptive planning happening within companies.”
Positive actions that Douglas believes should already be happening within the industry include detailed analysis of the variables (such as flooding).
“Companies should put to use their engineering skills to study the intensity of rainfall and other extreme weather events,” he advises. “Technical data on intensities can be used to support better decision making in companies, such as the need to build better tailings ponds or the need to at least provide better maintenance of those tailings ponds.”
Such actions, believes Douglas, will make companies more resilient and better able to withstand the risks in their area to safeguard business continuity. It will also work to safeguard and protect the community and ecosystem, he adds.
“There are wins all around for why companies should be doing these things now,” he states. “Companies can incorporate this data at a local level and can extract data from other levels to look at their supply chains in other areas in order to determine how climate change could affect the flow of materials, sale of raw materials, movement of goods, and other critical processes.”
Although there remains a great deal of work to do, Douglas believes that the occurrence of ongoing extreme weather events will continue to draw increased attention to the topic.
“I think we’ll see more pick up due to some of the more extreme weather conditions that seem to be happening more regularly now,” he adds. “It’s just a matter of time before companies will be forced to think about how these changes will impact them and to develop adaptation strategies to minimize negative impacts to infrastructure and operations.”
Of course, in the end, one of the big drivers will be the bottom line.
“When the risks become material, when companies want to safeguard their profitability and the safety of their employees – that’s when we will see them push themselves and adapt,” concludes Douglas. “That’s when real changes will begin to occur.”