Some say we're going to 'mine our way out of the climate crisis'. What do they mean? (2024)

Mineral sands are used to make everything from electric cars and smartphones to sunscreen.

As Australia enters what Trade Minister Don Farrell is calling a "golden age in critical minerals development", mining companies are eyeing vast stretches of farmland in Victoria and New South Wales for mineral sand mines.

But farmers are concerned about the loss of agricultural land and future health of areas earmarked for mining.

So, what exactly is mineral sands mining? And what does it mean for the environment and the communities that live there?


Minerals needed for renewable energy transition

Australian National University professor of economic geology John Mavrogenes says a global transition to renewable energy is needed to avoid climate catastrophe, and will not be possible without critical minerals.

Australia is home to some of the earth's largest recoverable deposits of critical minerals, including rare earths, titanium and zirconium, which are found in mineral sands deposits.

Some say we're going to 'mine our way out of the climate crisis'. What do they mean? (1)

"It seems like a strange position to say that we're going to mine our way out of the climate crisis, because we're programmed to think that mining is bad, and green is good," Professor Mavrogenes says.

"But we're in this quandary where we're going to need a lot of magnets and batteries if we're going to do this, and that's going to take a lot of lithium and rare earths, and we're going to have to get them from somewhere."

Some say we're going to 'mine our way out of the climate crisis'. What do they mean? (2)

Valuable commodity

The minerals in mineral sands are used in batteries, magnets, aerospace, defence technologies, and health care.

University of Adelaide chemical engineering professor Nigel Cook says the world needs vast volumes of these minerals if it is to transition to renewable energy technology.

"Demand for the critical rare earths ... is certainly strong and is likely to continue to increase in the future," he says.

Some say we're going to 'mine our way out of the climate crisis'. What do they mean? (3)

According to the International Energy Agency, producing an electric car requires more than 200 kilograms of critical minerals, including rare earth elements for magnets and lithium for the car's battery.

Producing a wind turbine requires up to 2 tonnes of rare earths to produce permanent magnets.

Australia's race to become a critical minerals leader

Professor Cook says Australia has the potential to become a critical minerals superpower.

"We've got fantastic resources in this country. We've got the know how, we've got the skills. And there's a lot to be gained from this," Professor Cook said.

Some say we're going to 'mine our way out of the climate crisis'. What do they mean? (4)

Australia is home to about one fifth of the world's potential supply of rare earth elements.

It is also home to the world's largest deposits of zirconium, the world's largest deposits of titanium-rich rutile, and the world's second-largest deposits of titanium-rich ilmenite.

But Australian production of critical minerals is small in comparison to China, whichdominates both world production and processing of rare earths.

"The Chinese really are controlling the rare earth markets, as indeed they are for a number of other critical minerals as well," Professor Cook said.

"And this is really why the federal government here and also in the US especially have tried to divert investment to make sure that there's a plentiful supply of rare earths to avoid situations in which China might restrict exports."

In October 2023, the United States and Australia signed a compact with the aim of working together to build a "clean energy supply chain" outside China.

The same month, the Australian government announced it would increase the funding available for critical minerals mining and processing to $6 billion in an effort to boost Australian production.

The government is also calling for private investment, unveiling in January 2024 a list of 52 "high-quality, investment ready critical minerals projects" in need of private funding, including mineral sands projects.

Not without cost

University of Sydney postdoctoral research associate and Minerals Policy Institute chairperson Lian Sinclair says developing a critical minerals industry in Australiawill not come without costs.

"For all mining, there's an issue of land clearance, which has some kind of biodiversity impact, or if it's land clearing of farmland, then it's a loss of farmland," Dr Sinclair says.

Some say we're going to 'mine our way out of the climate crisis'. What do they mean? (5)

"There's water use involved, and then there's tailings ... the waste product that's left from initial stages of processing."

Once mining was completed, companies are required to rehabilitate mined land, but Dr Sinclair says there are "very few successful examples" of former mine sites being returned to healthy natural ecosystems in Australia.

A 2017 report by the Australia Institute concluded that despite thousands of mine closures in Australia since colonisation, just a handful had been successfully rehabilitated.

Health concerns

Rare earth mining from mineral sands also typically generates radioactive waste, due to low levels of radioactive minerals uranium and thorium present in monazite.

Dr Sinclair says companies must find ways to safely handle radioactive waste to keep workers and community members safe.

"How well are those heavy metals and radioactive materials being separated from the environment? And how can the company guarantee that they will be separated from the environment in the event of floods, or other disasters in perpetuity?" Dr Sinclair asked.

Some say we're going to 'mine our way out of the climate crisis'. What do they mean? (6)

Fast-tracking onshore processing

To extract the maximum value from Australia's critical mineral deposits, Professor Mavrogenes says Australia should develop the capacity to process the minerals itself, rather than shipping them overseas.

"If we want to just make 10 per cent [of potential income from] this multi-billion-dollar annual industry, then we should just dig and ship, which is what we traditionally do in Australia," he said.

"If we want to cash in on more of the supply chain, we're going to have to get more technical, and we're going to have to extract them and do something with them."

Some say we're going to 'mine our way out of the climate crisis'. What do they mean? (7)

The Australian government is attempting to fast-track the development of onshore processing, granting $1.25 billion in investment funding from the Critical Minerals Facility to the development of mining giant Iluka's Eneabba rare earths processing plant in Western Australia— due to be commissioned in late 2025.

A rare earths processing plant built by Lynas in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, began production for the first time in December.

And proposals are in the pipeline for processing plants at other mine sites, including VHM's proposed Goschen mineral sands and rare earths mine in northern Victoria.

Farmers oppose mines

The mineral sands mines proposed for the Murray Basin cover tens of thousands of hectares of farmland, including prime cropping country.

Victorian Farmers Federation president Emma Germano cautioned the government to take "a slow and precautionary approach to mining development to ensure food and fibre production is not jeopardised."

Astron Corporation's Donald Rare Earths and Mineral Sands Project, which has been granted a mining licence but is still seeking finance, covers 2,500 hectares of land in Victoria's Wimmera region, with more than 40,000 hectares of primarily agricultural landunder exploration.

Some say we're going to 'mine our way out of the climate crisis'. What do they mean? (8)

WIM Resources' Avonbank mine, near Horsham in Victoria, covers 3,546 hectaresof cropping country, while initial stages of VHM's proposed Goschen mineral sands mine south of Swan Hill will cover 1,479 hectares of agricultural land.

Both projects have sparked opposition from farming communities, with dozens of submissions calling on the Victorian government to oppose the projects and formed the lobby group Mine Free Mallee Farms.

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Some say we're going to 'mine our way out of the climate crisis'. What do they mean? (2024)
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