WHISTLER, B.C. — An emerging trend amongst analysts and participants in the mining industry has been the need to explore and develop with greater efficacy; to make geologically economic discoveries at a lower cost, and advance those deposits towards production in a timely and efficient manner.
It is a concept that appeals to companies of all sizes — from large-cap miners to greenfield explorers — and it is an idea that lies at the heart of the Society for Economic Geologists' (SEG) annual Geoscience for Discovery conference at Whistler.
For the SEG the goal is not an overly complicated one, though its importance cannot be understated: bridging the gap between geoscientific academia and the natural resource industry.
And it’s entirely evident during the event that the goal is one shared by all members of the mining community. Large companies like Teck Resources (TSXV: TCK.B; NYSE: TCK), Anglo American (LON: AAL), BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP; LON: BLT), and Rio Tinto (NYSE: RIO; LON: RIO) are significant sponsors and participants, while researchers and academics from global universities and think tanks offer insight into cutting edge geoscience.
“I thought, well here's an opportunity to get industry and academia working together in a way that could lead to some real benefits for explorers,” comments conference president and co-chair Gerry Carlson during an interview. “And I think it's been successful, as we have gotten the two sides talking to each other."
"I think the SEG has been following that model with its keystone conferences. If you listen to our talks here some of them are by industry people and some of them are by academics, but I think in the back of everyone's mind is just how this may lead to that next great discovery,” he continues.
And there are a number of avenues that the SEG has explored in accomplishing its goals. The first involves taking different looks at existing deposits, and stressing the need to keep an open mind geologically when looking at districts and regions. Carlson points to a presentation by Claire Chamberlain — Teck's regional chief geoscientist in South America — on the characteristics and exploration criteria for under-saturated alkalic porphyry deposits in British Columbia as a good example.
"I think sometimes regions are unfairly characterized as being small and low grade. One of the points I've heard during the talks is that erosion levels in these copper-gold porphyries is very important, and sometimes in certain districts a lot of deposits have been eroded away, whereas in other areas they've yet to be exposed," adds SEG organizing committee member Steve Robertson of Vancouver-based Imperial Metals (TSX: III), pointing to the work his company has done at its development-stage Red Chris copper-gold project in northern British Columbia.
"In that case it will take some deep exploration to actually show the true characteristics of the deposit. Our exploration at Red Chris was really inspired by other groups that had been exploring elsewhere in the world and finding the deeper roots underneath what appeared to be higher levels of deposits," he says.
Carlson and Robertson agree that one of the more interesting aspects of SEG's work is taking geological models from one region of the world, and exploring how the pieces may fit together closer to home.
For example, Simon Richards of James Cook University in Australia presented his research on tectonic preconditioning and the formation of giant porphyry deposits, which focused on large scale projects in Southeast Asia like Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold's (NYSE: FCX) massive Grasberg copper-gold mine in Indonesia.
“I think in that regard there is a lot of potential in British Columbia. I mean the showings are known, the alterations are known at surface, but maybe people have walked away before doing enough drilling," Carlson adds, citing Colorado Resources’ (TSXV: CXO) North ROK copper discovery as an example. "It's been known forever and this summer they hit the sweet spot, which gives you that momentum to drill enough holes to potentially nail down a deposit."
SEG hopes to underline the importance of tectonic, regional and district scale geological approaches to mineral exploration, noting that Cordilleran regions have particularly benefitted from an explosion of research and understanding of terrane concepts and orogenic processes.
Robertson notes that there is a definitive role for public geoscience in the process as well, and points to his positive experiences serving as a technical advisor for Geoscience BC. He says that the public geoscience initiatives being done around New Gold's (TSX: NGD; NYSE-MKT: NGD) Blackwater gold deposit are a prime example of how government-funded regional programs can help the industry establish prospective new district plays.
"Even though these systems are big, they are not that big. It's very easy to miss them when you fly over northern BC and see how vast the wilderness is up there. Well, it's not hard to imagine a lot being hidden there yet," Robertson continues. "And all of us really enjoy that interaction because on the government side the geologists are out there mapping the rocks on a regular basis, so they're a great resource.”
Technology and new exploration techniques are another focus for SEG. Carlson says he often hears how the oil and gas industries are so far ahead of the mining industry in terms of three-dimensional seismic modelling and general geophysics. He notes work currently being done at the University of British Columbia on three-dimensional modelling and geophysical data that could lead to some new techniques for explorers. He also points to Geotech's new ZTEM audio-frequency magnetics system, which can be operated by a helicopter or a fixed-wing aircraft.
Overall SEG’s conference exudes a sense of optimism that is, at times, lacking in the industry given current market conditions. It provides a platform where everyone from prospectors to executives of multi-billion dollar companies can exchange ideas, and take those ideas back into the field in a bid to make new and exciting discoveries.
"I think in a way, we as geologists always need to be open minded. I think a good example of that is diamonds in the Northwest Territories," Robertson concludes. "I mean when I was going to university it pretty much wasn't believed that there were diamonds in the entire North American craton, and that's certainly been proven wrong. So you have to be very careful not to fall into those preconceived notions."
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