As the old saying goes, “Time is money.” This is very much the case in uranium plays, because of the need to take advantage of the current world price for this metal — a price that seems destined to rise as an energy-hungry world looks for alternatives to fossil fuels. Yet the money that finances uranium exploration can get impatient, particularly given the fact that it can take two decades or more for a promising orebody to be turned into revenue. Financing can become scarce and expensive, even for a particularly promising opportunity.
This points to the need for a shift in strategy regarding uranium exploration — which includes a more strategically-sound approach to environmental assessments (EAs).
Less time from target identification to ore production is particularly important in uranium plays. The complex environmental and social issues surrounding this mineral may mean a more lengthy process to gain regulatory approval to proceed. This includes extraction of the ore and the safe treatment, handling and disposal of tailings, waste rock and wastewater. The 18 to 30 months to do the EA itself can be followed by another 18 months for the federal and provincial EA review and licensing processes.
Some companies prefer to start the EA process only after they have already done much of the work delineating the orebody and planning its extraction, and are more certain of the economic feasibility of the project. Understandably, they do not want to put money and effort into an EA on a property that may turn out to be uneconomic.
However, delaying the EA comes at a price, and in part this comes in the higher financing costs caused by the fact that the timeline becomes longer than it needs to be. Debt servicing and other financial costs can turn what might otherwise have been a profitable venture into a financial disappointment for those involved.
Having the EA work done at the same time as the orebody is being delineated can help shorten the timeline, reduce financing costs and add significant value to the project. If the mine is being developed by a junior with the plan to sell out to a major, having the EA underway usually means a greater and faster payout for those who took the risk. For majors, too, the need to demonstrate a good return on investment is a big part of getting the necessary financial resources.
Smoother development process
Starting the EA process sooner means that there will likely be fewer delays and problems in the development of the mine, for several reasons.
REDUCED COSTS: In some cases, early EA involvement can mean lower costs. For example, consider the boreholes that must be drilled to delineate the orebody and plan the extraction. If the measurements needed for mine planning can be done at the same time as the environmental assessment information is gathered, this can reduce the number of boreholes needed for EA purposes, significantly reducing the cost and shortening the timeline.
EASIER PLANNING: Plans for the mine’s infrastructure must be done in accordance with the EA findings, so it makes sense to have this information available before picking the location and design for buildings, roads, tailings ponds and other essential elements. This way, those plans are less likely to need alteration because of a proponent’s development criteria or regulators’ concerns about environmental impacts.
A MORE FOCUSED EA: Many EAs tend to take the “shotgun” approach because of the need to cover all possible considerations. This can mean a more costly, lengthy process. Early involvement means that the work can be done in a more focused way, zeroing in on those aspects of the project that have the highest potential for liabilities for a proponent.
BETTER WASTE MANAGEMENT: Being able to plan in advance how to deal with tailings, waste rock, wastewater and other domestic or industrial waste helps to increase the options and decrease environmental impacts. This makes it more likely to find favour with regulators. Plans for the mine’s eventual decommissioning and post-closure land use are likewise easier to make when planners have available to them the results of environmental analysis, early in the project planning process.
FASTER ACCEPTANCE OF EA FINDINGS: Perhaps most importantly, if EA environmental and engineering specialists are able to get onto the property sooner, they can do a study of the environment in its undisturbed state. Examining the site before it has been disturbed supports establishment of a baseline of the site’s environmental characteristics, for an assessment that is more acceptable to regulators’ and proponents’ own evaluation processes. Also, because it is always easier to work with Mother Nature rather than against her, having a good look at the undisturbed site helps locate mine elements, including mine waste and tailings, in sites with the best possible characteristics. Any proposed remediation or mitigation measures are more likely to be accepted by regulators, with fewer delays caused by having to do multiple iterations of the plans for the mine.
In short, being involved from the start with the EA process is a major success factor in designing a “green” mine.
In our work with both juniors and majors (including Cameco Corp. and AREVA Cogema Resources Inc.), we find that having a comprehensive environmental assessment, integrated with mine planning, is a big part of the value of a mining operation. Mine buyers like having a comprehensive, reliable environmental data set and strategy that is not likely to be challenged by regulators, government entities, environmental activist groups or the news media.
This means that having an EA based on reliable baseline data, done in a focused way, is a major factor in selling a project quickly and for a good price.
Leon C. Botham, P.Eng. ([email protected]) is a senior geotechnical engineer, and sector leader of Golder Associates Ltd.’s Canadian Mining Group. Ron Barsi, P.Geo. ([email protected]) has 30 years of experience in uranium extraction. Both are members of Golder’s Saskatoon, Sask., office and can be reached at tel. 1+306.665.7989.