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Shifting toward a culture of sustainable mining by design

April 13, 2021

By Nicolette Taylor

Meeting sustainability performance goals at mines requires a new mindset. Engineers play a pivotal role.

For many years, sustainability factors have played a key role in maintaining a mine’s social license to operate. Now more than ever, sustainability performance is also critical to obtain funding from the investment community. Investors want to see a positive return, not just on financial performance, but on what is called the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit. The consensus is that companies with a strong triple bottom line are more resilient and reliable investments.

Engineers play a unique role in helping miners meet their sustainability goals, which requires moving beyond the “technical” to embrace a new mindset. As engineers, we can no longer only consider safety, reliability, and cost-effectiveness of designs—we must now also consider the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) impact. How do we make the shift? The answer begins with an evolution of company culture toward Sustainable Mining by Design™.

What is Sustainable Mining by Design™?

In any project, the greatest impact with the lowest cost is made early in the planning and design stage. This holds true when progressing toward more sustainable mining operations. Integrating sustainable solutions at the design stage requires a common understanding of sustainability and why it is critical to our industry and our global communities.

Sustainable Mining by Design™ is Stantec’s philosophy to make a positive impact on a mining operation’s triple bottom line by keeping sustainability factors in mind throughout the design process and striving for innovative solutions. The goal is to meet the needs of today without compromising the needs of the future for our clients, our communities, and our natural environments. So how can we facilitate this cultural shift?

It is possible for mining operations to meet the needs of today without sacrificing the needs of our communities and natural environments.

Communicating and investing in measurable goals

If you’ve read John Doerr’s Measure What Matters, you know that setting and communicating clear, measurable goals is key to driving performance. This practice is what we are seeing among mining companies. Their annual sustainability reports clearly define targets, such as Newmont targeting net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and a 30% cut in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030.

While emissions tend to be a hot-ticket item in the world of sustainability, miners publish a wide array of other measurable targets. Take for instance BHP’s goal to achieve gender balance by 2025, starting from a baseline of 17% in 2016. Welcoming more women into a traditionally male-dominated workforce means mines need to be designed to be inclusive work environments. That kind of design shift all starts with setting and measuring the goal.

The longevity of company vision is another influential component. Strategizing based on where your company needs to be in 10 years, 20 years, or even further into the future is vital. Engaging all levels of staff, not just the C-Suite, in sustainability and related technology goals is equally important. Breaking down siloed thinking and engaging the full spectrum of employee talent in this way is essential to advancing sustainable solutions.

As mining is a traditionally male-dominated workforce, mines need to be designed to be more inclusive work environments.

Recognizing the benefit of employee retention

A culture of sustainability increases employee retention, which is more cost-effective and maintains a company’s intangible intellectual capital. An employer of choice must demonstrate how they are making the world a better place and how they will improve lives today and for generations to come. Core company values like these are appealing for many, especially younger employees who want their work to be connected to a higher purpose.

Thus, a culture of sustainability not only helps retain the employee but improves motivation for more-productive output—a win-win for everyone. Managers and supervisors who recognize this major benefit are more inclined to support sustainability initiatives, which aids the broader cultural shift within the company.

Demonstrating cost reductions and recovery improvements

Part of the cultural shift means helping leaders and employees recognize that sustainability doesn’t have to be a financial burden. In fact, the opposite can be true. If done right, sustainable designs and practices have the potential to drive costs down and improve mine-recovery rates.

Take for instance a copper mine in Arizona that completed a debottlenecking study to review their operation. Through this exercise, they found they could save energy costs by modifying their grinding and crushing circuit. The modifications meant they could reduce the costs, energy use, and GHG emissions while also increasing their recovery. Sharing stories like this teaches others that sustainable solutions can and should bring cost benefits to the business.

Ultimately, we need to shift our mentality and demonstrate that green design doesn’t need to cost more.

An Arizona mine was able to increase copper recovery while reducing energy costs, demonstrating that producing green doesn’t need to cost more.

Rewarding the courage to try something new

Often there is pressure to design what is tried and true to reduce risks. This is especially the case within the mining industry, which tends to adopt change more conservatively than other industries because the safety and financial risks are high. However, innovation—which is essential to advancing sustainability—requires venturing into the unknown.

In a rapidly changing world, we need to encourage staff to be bold with their creative ideas. Key to building this courage is sharing success stories and rewarding initiative. An innovative mindset is how we will solve the industry’s sustainability challenges, making it a cornerstone of the shift toward a culture of sustainable mining.

Engineers play a unique role in helping miners meet their sustainability goals, which requires moving beyond the ‘technical’ to embrace a new mindset.

Creating a sense of urgency

A strong technical team is often skilled in providing solutions for the way things are done today. Adopting a more holistic, long-term view creates a new challenge to overcome—creating a sense of urgency. For engineers, this urgency can be difficult to embrace when the target is 10, 15, or 20 years out. However, mining companies with long-term aspirational targets need every bit of ESG help now to satisfy their stakeholders and get their mines funded and permitted.

While engineering-service providers may not feel the same immediate business threat as mine operators, helping them recognize this industry urgency is key to pivoting. Leaders must reinforce that the need for sustainability is here now, and with mounting stakeholder pressure, the trajectory only has one direction.

Embracing teamwork and partnerships

The broad nature of sustainable development requires a multidisciplinary approach. In turn, having a pro-partnership attitude is key to a successful cultural shift.

The various disciplines needed to enhance sustainability on a project might already be within your organization. For instance, Stantec’s Smart Cities program is a perfect example of where we can apply diverse expertise involving automation and electric-powered transportation to a mine site. After all, a mine site is essentially its own city. Bringing that experience together with our mining expertise is what will advance our methods. 

Electric vehicles can be used for transportation on mine sites to reduce carbon emissions.

More help is out there

Even if your company has extensive and diverse internal expertise, don’t lose sight of external resources. Universities, research organizations, and external suppliers each have something unique to offer. This is why at Stantec, we’re teaming up with an external partner to provide a more sustainable ore-haulage method. Our client is considering transitioning from a traditional haulage fleet to an autonomous electric fleet. A successful transition using this technology would reduce carbon emissions while improving safety.

Partnerships such as these mean we can climb the sustainability ladder together, learning from each other along the way. That echoes one of Stantec’s core values—we’re better together.

  • Nicolette Taylor

    Nicolette manages key aspects of business planning, marketing, and business development that advance our mining sustainability initiatives. She understands the greatest impact for more sustainable mining comes from the project design phase.

    Contact Nicolette
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