Metals exploration in a changing industry

CIM Bulletin, Vol. 95, No. 1058, 2002

R. Horn, INCO Limited, Mississauga, Ontario

The financial performance of the mining industry, measured by return on equity and capital employed, has been inadequate for many years. Consequently, mining companies are not valued highly by stock markets. Among the more important causes for the decline in the sector are the conservative working practices and reluctance to adapt to change or to develop new technology, although some relatively recent developments such as SX-EW copper and heap leach gold have made a significant impact on the cost base of these metals. The subsidiary business of metals exploration suffers from the same problems as the rest of the industry. The rate of discovery of ore deposits has been falling over many years and since the late 1990s, there has been a sharp reduction in global exploration activity that, if it continues, will further reduce the global supply of new ore reserves. New technological developments, particularly in geophysics and different operational practices may help reverse this trend. Statistical methods for evaluating the risk of ore reserve estimates will also improve the economic return on new mining ventures. The science of ore geology has potential to reduce exploration risk, but modern ore genetic theory has not contributed greatly to recent discoveries. The junior exploration market has almost ceased, but a new style of technically specialized efficient small exploration company has emerged which, in alliances with major companies, may be the vehicle for future global exploration. Exploration in virgin terrains has a higher risk-discounted potential for the discovery of very large orebodies than that in known mining districts but mining companies have little financial incentive for this high risk exploration because of the very long lead time to production. Alliances of two or more companies reduce the risk in both the exploration for and development of major new mining projects. If new orebodies are not found, then metal prices will inevitably rise in the long term. Governments of industrial countries, particularly those with a significant mining industry such as Canada, should therefore provide assistance to exploration in order to maintain their existing industry and prevent a metals shortage from developing in the future with its consequent impact on the world economy and increased environmental damage as large low-grade orebodies are developed to supply an expanding market.
Keywords: Mining, Geology, Exploration, Orebodies, Junior companies, Financial performance.