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Peak minerals

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Peak minerals

Peak minerals marks the point in time when the largest production of a mineral will occur in an area, with production declining in subsequent years. While most mineral resources will not be exhausted in the near future, global extraction and production is becoming more challenging.[1] Miners must often have to dig deeper and accept lower grade ores.[2] In particular, declining average ore grades are indicative of a shift from 'easier and cheaper' to more 'complex and expensive' processing – in social and environmental terms as well as economic.


The concept of peak minerals offers a useful model for representing the changing impacts associated with processing declining resource qualities in the lead up to, and following, peak mineral production.[3]

Peak minerals provides a framework within which the economic, social and environmental trajectories of the mining industry can be explored in relation to the continuing (and often increasing) production of mineral resources. It focuses consideration on the change in costs and impacts associated with processing easily accessible, lower cost ores before peak production for a given mineral. It outlines how we might respond as processing becomes characterised by higher costs as the peak is approached and passed. Issues associated with the concept of peak minerals, include:

  • Average ore grades are in decline for most minerals, yet production is increasing.
  • Mines are becoming deeper, more remote and more inaccessible.
  • Easily processed ores are becoming exhausted.

Resource depletion and national wealth

Giurco et al. (2009)[4] indicate that the debate about how to frame resource depletion is ongoing. Traditionally a fixed stock paradigm has been used, but Tilton and Lagos (2007)[5] suggest using an opportunity cost paradigm is better because the usable resource quantity is represented by price and the opportunity cost of using the resource. Most minerals and metals are unlikely to run out (unlike energy minerals like coal or oil, minerals used in a dissipative fashion like phosphorus[6]) in the near future. Metals are inherently recyclable (and are more readily recoverable from end uses where the metal is used in a pure form and not dissipated) and also accessible at a range of grades. So although few metals are currently facing exhaustion, they are becoming harder to obtain, and the energy, environmental and social cost of acquiring them could constrain future production and usage.

Peak minerals and peak oil

Given increasing global population and rapidly growing consumption (especially in China and India), frameworks for the analysis of resource depletion can assist in developing appropriate responses. The most popular contemporary focus for resource depletion is oil (or petroleum) resources. In 1956, oil geologist M. King Hubbert famously predicted that conventional oil production from the lower 48 (mainland) states of the United States would peak by 1970 and then enter a terminal decline.[7] This model was subsequently proven to be accurate (although the peak year was 1971). This phenomenon is now commonly called 'Peak Oil', with peak production curves known as Hubbert Curves.

The concept of peak minerals is an extension of Hubbert's model of peak oil. Although widely cited for his predictions of peak oil, Hubbert intended to explore an appropriate response to the finite supply of oil, and framed this work within the context of increasing global population and rapidly growing consumption of oil.

More importantly than focusing on when oil would run out, Hubbert demonstrated that as production approached a peak, it would become increasingly difficult and ultimately unfeasibly expensive, favouring alternative energy sources (he suggested nuclear energy would fill the gap). In establishing the peak oil model, Hubbert was primarily focused on arguing that a planned transition was required to ensure future energy services.

When applied to some minerals (as for the example of copper), Hubbert's peak curve fits well, however gold has experienced multiple peaks due to new discoveries and the uptake of new technologies. Many mineral resources have exhibited logistic Hubbert-type production trends in the past, but have transitioned to exponential growth during the last 10–15 years, precluding reliable estimates of reserves from within the framework of the logistic model.[8]

Peak minerals versus peak oil

There is limited substantive work being undertaken to examine how the relationships between the concepts and assumptions of Peak Oil can be applied to minerals.[9][10] In establishing the similarities between peak oil and peak minerals, and utilising the peak framework as a model of resource exploitation, several factors must be taken into consideration:

  • Accurate estimates of easily accessible proven reserves;
  • Political and market stability;
  • Affordable, stable prices for consumers and enticing profits for producers;
  • Exponentially increasing consumption;
  • Independent producers focused only on maximising their immediate profits;
  • Perceived abundance of and availability of other reserves (e.g. US, Middle Eastern).

In understanding how these factors are important for modelling peak minerals, it is important to consider assumptions concerning the modelling process, assumptions about production (particularly economic conditions), and the ability to make accurate estimates of resource quantity and quality and the potential of future exploration.

Cheap and easy in the past; costly and difficult in future

Peak production poses a problem for resource rich countries like Australia, which have developed a comparative advantage in the global resources sector, which may diminish in the future. The costs of mining, once primarily reflected in economic terms, are increasingly being considered in social and environmental terms, although these are yet to meaningfully inform long-term decision-making in the sector. Such consideration is particularly important if the industry is seeking to operate in a socially, environmentally and economically sustainable manner into the next 30–50 years.[11]

Benefits from dependence on the resource sector

In 2008-09, minerals and fuel exports made up around 56% of Australia’s total exports. Consequently, minerals play a major role in Australia’s capacity to participate in international trade and contribute to the international strength of its currency.[12] Whether this situation contributes to Australia’s economic wealth or weakens its economic position is contested. While those supporting Australia’s reliance on minerals cite the theory of comparative advantage, opponents suggest a reliance on resources leads to issues associated with 'Dutch disease' (a decline in other sectors of the economy associated with natural resource exploitation) and ultimately the hypothesised ‘resource curse’.

Threats from dependence on the resource sector

Contrary to the theory of the comparative advantage, many mineral resource rich countries are often outperformed by resource poor countries.[13] This paradox, where natural resource abundance actually has a negative impact on the growth of the national economy is termed the resource curse. After an initial economic boost, brought on by the booming minerals economy, negative impacts linked to the boom surpass the positive, causing economic activity to fall below the pre-resource windfall level.

Mineral supply and demand

The economics of a commodity are generally determined by supply and demand. Mineral supply and demand will change dramatically as all costs (economic, technological, social and environmental) associated with production, processing and transportation of minerals increases with falling ore grades. These costs will ultimately influence the ability of companies to supply commodities, and the ability of consumers to purchase them. It is likely that social and environmental issues will increasingly drive economic costs associated with supply and demand patterns.[14][15][16]

Economic scarcity as a constraint to mineral supply

As neither overall stocks nor future markets are known, most economists normally do not consider physical scarcity as a good indicator for the availability of a resource for society.[17] Economic scarcity has subsequently been introduced as a more valid approach to assess the supply of minerals. There are three commonly accepted measures for economic scarcity: the user costs associated with a resource, the real price of the resource, and the resource’s extraction costs. These measures have historically externalised impacts of a social or environmental nature – so might be considered inaccurate measures of economic scarcity given increased environmental or social scrutiny in the mining industry. Internalisation of these costs will contribute to economic scarcity by increasing the user costs, the real price of the resource, and its extraction costs.

Demand for minerals

While the ability to supply a commodity determines its availability as has been demonstrated, demand for minerals can also influence their availability. How minerals are used, where they are distributed and how, trade barriers, downstream use industries, substitution and recycling can potentially influence the demand for minerals, and ultimately their availability. While economists are cognisant of the role of demand as an availability driver, historically they have not considered factors besides depletion as having a long-term impact on mineral availability.[18]

Future production

There are a variety of indicators that show production is becoming more difficult and more expensive. Key environmental indicators that reflect increasingly expensive production are primarily associated with the decline in average ore grades of many minerals.[19] This has consequences in mineral exploration, for mine depth, the energy intensity of mining, and the increasing quantity of waste rock.

Adjusting to a higher energy intensity is challenging for the industry in light of peak oil and rising energy costs in a carbon constrained future. New deposits in remote locations will also be constrained by rising energy costs, and the associated transportation.

Although new mineral deposits are still being discovered, and reserves are increasing for some minerals, these are of lower quality and are less accessible. This reduces the competitiveness of new deposits in the global sector, and necessitates the development of new technology to remain competitive.

Social context

Different social issues must be addressed through time in relation to peak minerals at a national scale, and other issues manifest on the local scale.

As global mining companies seek to expand operations to access larger mining areas, competition with farmers for land and for scare water is becoming increasingly intense.[20][21] Negative relationships with near neighbours influence companies' ability to establish and maintain a social license to operate within the community.[22]

Access to identified resources is becoming harder as questions are asked about the benefit from the regional economic development mining is reputed to bring.

See also

Publications and external resources

  • The Institute for Sustainable Futures
  • Peak Minerals in Australia: a review of changing impacts and benefits
  • The Environmental Sustainability of Mining in Australia: Key Mega-Trends and Looming Constraints (Gavin Mudd, 2010)
  • Will Sustainability Constraints Cause 'Peak Minerals'?
  • Mineral Futures Discussion Paper: Sustainability Issues, Challenges and Opportunities
  • The Global Phosphorus Research Initiative
  • The Oil Drum: Ugo Bardi
  • Peak Nothing: Recent Trends in Mineral Resource Production


  1. ^ Mudd, G M, 2010, The Environmental Sustainability of Mining in Australia: Key Mega-Trends and Looming Constraints. Resources Policy, doi:10.1016/j.resourpol.2009.12.001.
  2. ^ Klare, M. T. (2012). The Race for What’s Left. Metropolitan Books.  
  3. ^ Giurco, D., Prior, T., Mudd, G., Mason, L. and Behrisch, J. (2009). Peak minerals in Australia: a review of changing impacts and benefits. Prepared for CSIRO Minerals Down Under Flagship, by the Institute for Sustainable Futures (University of Technology, Sydney) and Department of Civil Engineering (Monash University), March 2010.
  4. ^ Giurco, D., Evans, G., Cooper, C., Mason, L. & Franks, D. (2009) Mineral Futures Discussion Paper: Sustainability Issues, Challenges and Opportunities. Institute for Sustainable Futures, UTS and Sustainable Minerals Institute, University of Queensland.
  5. ^ Tilton, J. & Lagos, G. (2007) Assessing the long-run availability of copper. Resources Policy, 32, 19-23
  6. ^ Cordell, D., Drangert, J.-O. & White, S. (2009) The story of phosphorus: Global food security and food for thought. Global Environmental Change, 19, 292-305.
  7. ^ Hubbert, M. K. (1956) Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuel. Drilling and Production Practice.
  8. ^ Rustad, J. R. (2011) Peak Nothing: Recent Trends in Mineral Resource Production
  9. ^ Heinberg, R. (2007) Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada, New Society Publishers.
  10. ^ Mudd, G. M. & Ward, J. D. (2008) Will Sustainability Constraints Cause "Peak Minerals"? 3rd International Conference on Sustainability Engineering and Science: Blueprints for Sustainable Infrastructure. Auckland, New Zealand
  11. ^ Giurco, D., Evans, G., Cooper, C., Mason, L. & Franks, D. (2009) Mineral Futures Discussion Paper: Sustainability Issues, Challenges and Opportunities. Institute for Sustainable Futures, UTS and Sustainable Minerals Institute, University of Queensland.
  12. ^ AusIMM (2006) Australian Mineral Economics, Carlton, The Australian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy.
  13. ^ Auty, R. M. & Mikesell, R. F. (1998) Sustainable development in mineral economies, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  14. ^ Esteves, A. M. (2008) Mining and social development: Refocusing community investment using multi-criteria decision analysis. Resources Policy, 33, 39-47.
  15. ^ Hamann, R. (2004) Corporate social responsibility, partnerships, and institutional change: The case of mining companies in South Africa. Natural Resources Forum, 28, 278-290.
  16. ^ Jenkins, H. & Yakovleva, N. (2006) Corporate social responsibility in the mining industry: Exploring trends in social and environmental disclosure. Journal of Cleaner Production, 14, 271-284.
  17. ^ Barnett, HJ, GM Van Muiswinkel and M. Schechter,(1981). Are Minerals Costing More? Int. Inst Appi. Syst. Anal., Work. Pap. No. WP-81-20. П ASA, Laxenburg, Austria
  18. ^ Yaksic, A. & Tilton, J. E. (2009) Using the cumulative availability curve to assess the threat of mineral depletion: The case of lithium. Resources Policy, 34(4): 185-194.
  19. ^ Mudd, G. M. (2007) Gold mining in Australia: linking historical trends and environmental and resources sustainability. Environmental Science & Policy, 10, 629-644.
  20. ^ Hamann, R. (2003) Mining companies' role in sustainable development: the 'why' and 'how' of corporate social responsibility from a business perspective. Development Southern Africa, 20, 237 - 254.
  21. ^ Jenkins, H. & Yakovleva, N. (2006) Corporate social responsibility in the mining industry: Exploring trends in social and environmental disclosure. Journal of Cleaner Production, 14, 271-284.
  22. ^ Brereton, D., Moran, C. J., McIlwain, G., McIntosh, J. & Parkinson, K. (2008) Assessing the cumulative impacts of mining on regional communities: An exploratory study of coal mining in the Muswellbrook area of New South Wales. ACARP Project C14047, Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining, Centre for Water in the Minerals Industry, and the Australian Coal Association Research Program.
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