Mining and the Future

David Mogk
published Aug 10, 2012
A historical map of ore deposits of Australia, Australian Mining History Association,

I'm currently attending the International Geological Congress in Brisbane, Australia. At this meeting I've been struck by the huge presence that the mining industry has at this meeting, with major sponsors that include Rio Tinto, BHPBillition, Vale, Xstrata, and the Moultrie Group; and the relatively minor visibility of energy companies in contrast to similar meetings in the US where oil and gas interests seem to reign (Petrobras being the only major energy-based industrial sponsor). The depth and breadth of the scientific presentations on mineral resources is hugely impressive: ore petrogenetic processes, geochemical and geophysical exploration methods, remote sensing, structural control of ore deposits, tectonic distribution of ore deposits, role of ore deposits in evolution of the crust, metallurgical processing, minerals that support emerging technologies....And it is very clear that production of minerals is of very high interest from an economic standpoint accounts for 54% of Australia's total goods and services, and has invested more than $125 billion in Australia in the last 10 years." China's rising demand for mineral commodities (Acrobat (PDF) 472kB Aug24 12) (source USAid) will far outstrip Chinese domestic production of minerals (source USGS), and this is a large focus of the talks at this meeting and an undercurrent of conversation throughout. Mineral exploration is pushing frontiers: looking deeper, at lower grade deposits, and in developing countries that are actively seeking to develop their resources as a primary economic driver. And the big mining companies are actively hiring—but they are targeting their recruitment efforts at Canadian, Australian, and Chinese students. (I did run into one of my former students from Montana State University here in Brisbane, and he is working in the mining industry—but hired by a major international mining company to work on a roll front uranium deposit here in Australia. There were few employment opportunities in the mining sector for him in America).

I would suggest that this state of affairs is a major short coming of geoscience education in America, and actually reflects a forthcoming national crisis. A 2008 review of degree requirements for BS degrees that only 2% of geology departments in the US required a course in Economic Geology Drummond and Marks, 2008, Journal of Geoscience Education. At my institution, we lost our Economic Geology course in 1986 when our administration chose to not replace our economic geologist upon his untimely death. Subsequently, I've only been able to cover a week or two of sulfide and oxide minerals and their occurrences in my Mineralogy course for majors, and spend about a week on mineral resources in my introductory Environmental Geology course. Otherwise, that's all the economic geology our students will get (in Montana, with its heritage of mining from the Virginia City gold rush to mining "the richest hill on Earth" at Butte). And I've personally been involved with exploration for talc, gold, molybdenum and uranium from Alaska across the length of the Rocky Mountains in the western US, and have contributed to environmental mine remediation projects throughout most of my career. But we just can't seem to "fit" Economic Geology into our curriculum And I suspect that this is true for many, if not most, of the geoscience departments in America—there are not many faculty trained or interested in teaching economic geology, and other courses have taken precedence given limited course credits in a degree program (Drummond and Markin, 2008). So, where will the next generation of economic geologists come from to meet our national mineral needs?
The reality is that all modern economies will continue to rely heavily on extracted mineral resources—e.g. traditional ferric, base and precious metals, "industrial minerals" such as talc, calcite and gypsum, and increasingly other mineral resources such as Rare Earth Elements and germanium to support emerging technologies such as fiber optics, magnetics, semi-conductors and photovoltaics. The United States is also particularly vulnerable with respect to its lack of "strategic mineral resources." The United States must import 100% of its need for commodities such as chromium, aluminum, manganese, niobium, tantalum, and REEs , and over 50% of the cobalt, platinum and vanadium we use—all required for products ranging from catalytic converters to stainless steel to beer cans (source USGS Mineral Commodity Summary 2012). Whatever you think of the mining industry, our economic fortunes are directly linked: through balance of trade, manufacturing capacity, wages and taxes. I was surprised to see (but in restrospect, should not have been) the great extent to which mining is alive and well in the rest of the world. And American contributions to mining are declining and increasingly irrelevant in this global stage.
So for the geoscience education community, it is probably a good time to reconsider what and how we teach about the mineral industry. What message are we sending to our students regarding the mining industry? There are plenty of career opportunities for students in minerals exploration, mine development, metallurgy, and environmental remediation. If we don't at least provide Economic Geology as an optional course in our geoscience curricula, we may lose an entire generation of qualified workers. And that means exporting yet another sector of the U.S. economy overseas. There are certainly big issues that confront the mining industry, most notably the associated environmental impacts, "boom and bust" impacts on economies, and the exploitation of resources in developing countries that may not have adequate safety and health policies in place. But shouldn't we be helping to address these issues by training the next generation of exploration geologists who are prepared to take on the physical, economic, and ethical issues related to mining? Rather than walking away, shouldn't we be doing a better job in helping the mining industry do a better job? Our country's national security, and economic well-being may depend on it. So, I'm curious, how are mineral resource issues and topics covered (if at all) in your own courses and curricula? (And remember, that alloy-frame mountain bike you like to ride is made of mineral components, most of which were not mined in the US!).


Drummond, C.N., and Marks, J.M., 2008, An Analysis of the Bachelor of Science in Geology Degree as Offered in the United States, Journal of Geoscience Education, v56, #2,

USAid, China's Rising Demand for Mineral Commodities,

U. S. Geological Survey, 2010 Minerals Yearbook, China:

U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries 2012,

Mining and the Future -- Discussion  

I taught for a semester in the geology department at Monash University outside of Melbourne, in 1986. One thing that struck me at the time was that "Geologist" was a job category in the Help Wanted ads of the newspaper. "Geologist" was a normal everyday job that people could encounter in the newspaper and in the economy at large, not an obscure academic discipline only found in obscure professional society publications.



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