Having been to several of the annual Mining Indabas held in Cape Town, South Africa, this year McNab was joined by a team of Dentons lawyers from all over the world to meet with clients and decision makers. McNab identified four main takeaways from the Indaba.
The first was lessons learned from Covid, including the need to plan for such future eventualities, however remote. “This year there was evidence of planning for future potential events like Covid, with continued investment in remote-driven vehicles, mechanised mining and a whole slate of underground mining technologies that will allow operations to continue, if necessary, without human intervention,” said McNab. “It’s quite impressive to see the amount of research going into this area.”
He noted that there was also a much sharper focus on energy security and decarbonisation. Mines all over the world are investing in renewables to ensure they progress to their net zero carbon targets, but at the same time the demand for fossil fuels is spiking in Europe in response to disruptions as a result of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
The push for renewables as a long-term solution to energy needs has turbo-charged demand for “green” metals such as copper, lithium, nickel, platinum group metals and manganese. Australia, Canada and the US have made critical minerals the centrepiece of their energy policies going forward, and that’s ignited a wave of research into battery technology, the hydrogen economy and other forms of sustainable energy. It's not just “green” metals that are in high demand either. “You need infrastructure to back up this transition to renewables, such as transmission lines and cables, and this in turn is creating demand for base metals,” added McNab.
Direct-to-mine supply agreements is another major theme in the mining industry at present. An example of this is electric vehicle maker Tesla’s reported bid in 2022 to acquire 10-20% of mining giant Glencore. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, reportedly rattled by the surging price of lithium (a key component in making electric vehicles), was considering moving into the mining business as a way of securing the raw materials supply chain. “It’s become increasingly clear that large-scale buyers of key raw materials are looking at entering the mining space as a way of locking in their supply chains. They no longer want to go through agents and brokers,” noted McNab. The Inflation Reduction Act passed in the US in 2022 is a sign of things to come, as a crucial part of the Act empowers the US government to follow China’s lead in taking a more direct role in sourcing materials.
ESG is also becoming more ubiquitous (and onerous), said McNab, with large mining companies coming under pressure from institutional shareholders to sign on to environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards. They are being monitored on their environmental behaviours and social impacts in ways barely imaginable a decade ago. He noted that there is pushback from many countries in Africa, which protest that they are being asked to adhere to costly and impractical Northern Hemisphere ESG standards just as they are climbing out of poverty.
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