By Dr Nicolaas C Steenkamp
Based on the bleak outlook at the end of 2023, the geological and mining outlook for 2024 is not optimistic. Investors and companies felt it in their pockets with losses and lower shareholder returns. Lack of exploration funding and active exploration could also spell the end of mining operations in the next three decades in South Africa, in particular. Optimism lies in the fact that the ‘Energy Big Six’ could bolster the African mining industry in the coming year.
Recently the value of commodities such as cobalt, copper and PGMs dropped to record low levels and there has been a struggle to regain ground – compounded by a marked increase in input and production costs. Iron-ore and coal revenue also decreased noticeably and contributed to the decrease in capitalisation of these companies. The weakening of African currencies also negatively affected operational input cost of key chemicals, materials and equipment. Chrome remains the exception at this time with positive revenue.1
OPEX is up, driven by massive increases in fuel and electricity costs. The continent has also had a difficult year in terms of power security with shortages projected to continue for 2024.
These factors have led to a decrease of available funds in budget allocations towards geological development and exploration, notably in Africa. Due to the lack of exploration programmes to either extend the life of known deposits or discover new deposits to develop the mining industry in South Africa, the industry could come to an end within a generation. If known deposits are mined at current rates, it is forecast that the gold sector could run out of operational mines in 27 years, iron-ore in 13 years, coal in 14 years and PGMs within 38 years.
There has also been a notable downward shift in the number of Western-standard studies according to mineral reporting codes for new prospect deposits. These studies across the feasibility range are expensive and time consuming to complete and do not guarantee that the deposit will be developed into an operational mine. In contrast, there has been a marked increase in the number of Chinese-style studies, which are more geared towards securing funding from Chinese financial institutions. These studies are generally much cheaper to undertake and have quicker turnaround times, with a higher potential of receiving funding to convert the deposit into a mining operation.
Costs associated with implementing net zero goals have also led mining companies to reconsider the viability and sustainability of their operations. Optimism, however, remains in that Africa offers significant potential for supplying the demand for critical minerals needed for decarbonisation efforts, notably copper, PGMs, lithium, nickel, cobalt and Rare Earth Elements (REE). A number of African countries, which are the main producers of the Energy Big Six, have also made significant strides in developing legislation to increase the volume of domestic beneficiation.
Furthermore, there has been a significant decrease in the number of students enrolling in the natural sciences such as geology and engineering programmes related to mining globally. This has been attributed to the increasing negative perception of mining and the lure of more lucrative careers in information technology. The perception is that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is fulfilling an increasing role in the exploration and discovery of new deposits, by being able to process big data resources.
In parallel, the mining industry is experiencing a significant challenge of an aging workforce and professionals reaching the end of their careers. The recessions, mining downturns and the effects of the COVID pandemic led to an exodus of mid-career professionals into other economic sectors. This can be viewed as a future risk, specifically in Western countries, but also impacting Africa.
Geoscience professionals have adapted and started to fill the gaps and needs in an environment of post-closure planning. Geologists are increasingly filling the ranks in companies looking at ways of addressing their responsibility after operations have come to an end, but with communities remaining in the area. This requires reskilling of the former employees and efforts related to rehabilitation of mine sites. Upskilling is also a critical part of reducing the risk of artisanal or illegal mining operations taking root at closed mines.
Noteworthy strides have been made in geological research in the past year and funding being made available by non-mining industries or purely academic institutions. The challenge remains the penetration of these advances into the industry and receiving seeding capital. Fortunately, the mining and geological sector has historically been more receptive to adopting new technologies and methods once the value addition has been proven.
The outlook for the geological sector is not very optimistic for 2024, but with the global drive for decarbonisation and providing energy alternatives, recognising the need for developing mineralogy and exploration to meet the demand would potentially turn in favour of the geoscience professionals in the near future.
- At the time of writing in November 2023.
Dr Nicolaas C Steenkamp is an independent consultant, specialising in geological, geotechnical and geometallurgical projects and mining project management. He has over two decades of industry experience with global exposure. (email@example.com)