We need ‘critical minerals’



If the Northern Territory wants to achieve a 50% renewable energy target by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050, as it says it does, it seems we will need to make a choice between two types of mineral extraction: Good Mining and Bad Mining.

“Good Mines” would get out of the ground the dozen-plus materials needed to make batteries and solar panels, known as critical minerals, needed for clean energy technologies, including copper, nickel, manganese, cobalt, chromium, molybdenum and zinc.

On the map (pictured) round dots represent operating mines for “critical minerals” by the end of last year – just two in the NT – for helium and titanium. A lithium mine, Tivan Core Lithium, can now be added. All three are in the Top End.

The triangles show mines “under development / care and maintenance” and the squares show mineral deposits.

Also included would be rare earths just up the road at Aileron, expected to employ 600 people in construction, 400 in operations and with a 38 year mine life.

Trouble is, while Arafura has buyers lined up across the globe, “financial closure” has yet to be achieved. That means money is still short.

“Bad Mines” are those we need to shut down or seriously scale down would be oil and gas. Pushing the Beetaloo gas development, about half way between Alice and Darwin, is doing the opposite.

Says Mines Minister Nicole Manison: “The fuel of transition is gas. It’s going to take some time before we’re fully powered in this world by renewables. We want to see that future but we need to get there.

“We don’t want to push people around the globe towards consuming more coal.”

The Territory also has coal, in the Simpson Desert, but digging it up isn’t a likely option, says Ian Scrimgeour, from the Department of Mines, because the deposit is a long way away and anyway, coal is on the nose.

In 2011 we reported about this coal to gas project causing distress to local environmentalists although it was described as being “ultra clean”.

Mr Scrimgeour is the driving force behind AGES, the Annual Geoscience Exploration Seminar, which brought more than 300 mining persons into town this week from all over Australia.

One of them, a seasoned convention goer, told the News: “There is a difference between other states and the NT: At AGES the department will tell you what you want to know and you need to know.”

Minister Manison’s enthusiasm for making the NT “a world class destination for mining investment” seems boundless. In her 12 minute speech opening AGES on Tuesday she used the word “exciting” at least a dozen times.

She is now travelling to Japan and South Korea to spread the message. (See update below.)

She wants the NT to be the “new Western Australia when it comes to mining”.

We’re still a long way off, but it’s not for want of trying: Ms Manison said thinly populated NT is spending $9.5m on “annual investment in exploration” – a subsidy for the mining companies which spent $197m dollars for exploration last year – compared to subsidies in Tasmania ($500,000), SA $3.5m, Queensland $5m, Victoria $7.5m and NSW $8.6m. WA doesn’t get a mention from Ms Manison – it spends $15m.

The NT has lots of projects in the pipeline, she says, 19 of them, with over $8.3 billion potential to create almost 6000 jobs in construction plus 4000 ongoing jobs.

“It’s something to be proud of.”

The current numbers are a lot smaller: The value in dollars is $4.8 billion. Employment totals 3500 people.

But it doesn’t get much bigger than the Newmont gold mine in the Tanami, north-west of Alice Springs, spending $2 billion on expansion, including a vertical shaft to a depth of 1.4 kilometres.

Tennant Creek is “buzzing” with a resurgence of Peko and Warrego reprocessing tailings.

But Minister Manison referred to climate change only in connection with mining critical minerals.

The big picture was missing at the convention: What are we going to do about the “Bad Mines”?

With the NT’s 2030 deadline getting close, right now seems to be a good time to get a clear picture of impending job losses and stranded assets – pipelines, drilling rigs, gas fields, generators.

And making concrete plans diverting superfluous mining staff to the “renewables” that we had better got cracking with.

Is the industry blocking its ears to what’s around the corner: Getting unlimited energy from the sun and having it delivered to our homes, all free of charge? What a competition!

Do the miners believe Ms Manison’s $40 billion NT economy by 2030 is a pipe dream?

And what if we don’t reach 50% renewables by 2030, and net zero by 2050, and warming exceeds 1.5 degrees, what will be the consequences?

Saul Griffith in the current Quarterly Essay puts his mind to this in a report The Wires That Bind.

In short, he says it all needs to start in our homes. We need to electrify everything including our cars. It is possible. He makes it sound easy. Once installed, the solar investment cost at 4% remains at $2000 a year for two decades instead power costs of $6000 now and climbing to $9000 by 2050 (page 11).

The massive gas reserves in the Beetaloo Basin about half-way between Alice Springs and Darwin is the subject of heated debate about fracking, speculation as the public struggles to get a handle on the complex issues or is simply left in the too-hard basket.

Some of the questions and issues:

Unfinished business resulting from the Pepper Report into fracking will be resolved, says the Minister.

At this point Tamboran Resources and Empire Energy, with US billionaire Bryan Sheffield as the biggest shareholder, have exploration permits in Beetaloo but no production licence yet.

So how come Sheffield is spending lots of money on a massive drilling rig when – on the face of it – the production licence is not a certainty? Is it?

Tamboran drilling in Beetaloo. ASX report.

Does he know more than we do?

Ms Manison, when asked by the News if there is a time limit for Beetaloo’s operation, she said: “Beetaloo will continue to operate for as long as it is commercially viable.” 

This month the Senate Standing Committees on Environment and Communications released its report Oil and Gas Exploration and Production in the Beetaloo Basin”.

It contains 14 recommendations including that “consistent with Pepper Inquiry” the Australian Government bring forward legislation to expand the water trigger to include all forms of unconventional gas, to be in operation by 31 December 2023.

The possibility of water contamination by fracking has been a major concern for Aboriginal spokespeople and environmentalists.

In view of the Senate report the environmental organisation Lock the Gate Alliance wants an immediate halt on exploration and production.

“Traditional Owners … have been recognised with important recommendations about protection of sacred sites and proper cultural impact assessments,” says the alliance’s national coordinator Carmel Flint.

“The NT Fyles Government has demonstrated it is not up to the task of regulating the multi-billion dollar, predatory fracking industry.”

On the question of carbon sinks and reducing CO2 pollution Mr Scrimgeour steers clear of making political statements but says natural gas could be blended with hydrogen.

Gas will be needed until 2050, but carbon capture and storage under ground will work towards the target. So will growing trees.

How much storage? How many trees?

Is the vast amount of our gas going to Japan taken into account in the NT’s net zero calculation?

We asked the Minister’s office. No answer yet.

According to the London based medium Finbold more than one million passenger Electric vehicle registered in Europe in the first quarter of 2023.

In EV sales as a percentage of overall car sales in 2021 Norway leads with 86%, followed by many other countries with a fraction of our sunshine. The US is on 5%, New Zealand on 4%. Australia isn’t even on the Canary Media list of 20.

Over lunch I put to two conference goers this question, asked by Alice Springs electricity guru Lyndon Frearson: Draw a line west from Alice Springs to the WA border. From there go south to the three states corner. Then go east to the Stuart Highway and follow it north back to The Alice.

If you covered that area with readily available, normal solar panels, what percentage of the world’s electricity demand do you think would they produce?

One and a half percent, ventured one of my fellow lunchers.

Mmmmh, I’ll go for one per cent, said the other.

The correct answer is 100 per cent – the whole world.

PHOTO at top: Resourcing the Territory.


UPDATE April 23:

A media release for Minister Manison says:-

Japan is already the Territory’s largest trading partner, and South Korea the fourth.

The tour includes contact with Japan’s INPEX and South Korea’s Posco Future M and Hyundai.

The demand for critical minerals is expected to keep growing to support renewable energy, battery storage and high-technology industries.

The Deputy Chief Minister will also host a focused tourism event in Tokyo, with a strong focus on Central Australia “to ensure that we bring Japanese tourists back to the Territory by their thousands”.


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