Mining, Minerals, Metals: Background
The metals, minerals, and mining industry is defined as activities involved in locating, excavating, and processing metals, minerals, and other geological resources that are needed in the economy. The industry contains five main segments:
- Oil and gas extraction: produces petroleum and natural gas to heat homes, fuel cars, and power factories.
- Coal mining: produces coal, a fossil fuel used primarily for electric power generation and the production of steel.
- Metal ore mining: extraction of metal ores, primarily gold, silver, iron, copper, lead, and zinc used to produce jewelry, electronics, and steel.
- Nonmetallic mineral mining: covers a wide range of mineral extraction and produces crushed stone, sand, and gravel for construction of roads and buildings.
- Support Activities for Mining: work done by contract companies within the mining industry. For example, quarrying or wide-range mineral extraction.
These outputs serve as the foundation for nearly all other industries, whether it is for the formation of some further product in the industry or simply the necessary need for that natural resource in the industry.
The mining industry can be dated as far back as 41000 BCE, to a mine in Swaziland. The mine, called the Lion Cave, is where natives mined hematite to produce ochre, a red pigment. Other mines found that existed during the same time frame were flint mines, which humans used for tools and weapons during the time.
The Ancient Egyptians developed quarry mining about 4,000 years ago in order to find gold, rock, and other ores that they needed. The Romans and Greek used similar techniques as the Egyptians in later times but further advanced how water was used in mining, as well as removed from mining pits, with the use of aqueducts.
In the medieval times, demand for metals such as iron, copper, and bronze further advanced the mining industry. This demand needed new techniques; including using pyrotechnics to blast away rock and earth to speed up the extraction and discovery of ores.
Mining eventually became very prevalent in the Western Hemisphere in the 19th century. The industry has continued to shape the lives of people who are often pulled from one location to another by the promise of work. Entire communities and towns have sprung up as a result mining opportunities.
Mining consists of two operations: exploration for the sought after resource, and the actual mining process. Exploration is typically handled by smaller companies or individual entrepreneurs. Mining is done by very large, sometimes multinational, companies due to the fact that establishing a modern day mine requires significant capital. Some of these big industry leaders include Alcoa, which produces aluminum, and ArcelorMittal; as well as BHP Billiton, Vale, and Angelo American, which are all diversified mining companies.
Technology has come to play a greater role in the industry, making way for better safety measures and reducing the amount of workforce needed for a job. The steel industry has especially benefited from this, with some companies reducing manpower by up to 90 percent.
Environmental effects have long been a concern for this industry. Many countries require mining companies to follow strict environmental guidelines to prevent erosion, sinkholes, groundwater contamination, and loss of biodiversity. There are provisions pertaining to the rehabilitation of the land to either its former or better condition. Gold mining companies often operate in fragile ecosystems, leading to charges of demand to the environment and the displacement or abuse of native populations. Environmental impact should be monitored in the near future since several national leaders have pledged to protect the environment, especially after the conference in Copenhagen where many of these issues were discussed. China, long maligned for their lack of regard for the environment, is now looking to decrease the carbon footprint by their steel mills according to their most recent five year plan.
Trade laws and international competition create a great deal of friction in the industry. Companies such as South Korea’s POSCO and Japan’s Sumitomo-Nippon Steel, two leading steel producers, export many of their products to countries such as the United States, where unions and steel companies complain of illegal dumping by offshore steel producers.
Recently there has been a large focus on rare earth metal mining due to ever advancing technology. The term rare, hints more at the difficulty of mining or extracting these metals than their actual abundance in nature. Their extraction ironically is being helped by newer technologies, exactly what they are needed to create and improve. China is the lead producer of rare earth metals, controlling 97 percent of production.
The current high levels of investment in new technology suggest that for large mining operations there is a focus on long-term value. Newer methods of exploitation will emerge to maximize production in a cost-effective way. Innovation along the entire mine production chain begins with drilling technology as can be seen in the new development of fracking. Investments in technology with result in more effective, durable and autonomous drills. These investments have already started to pay off in big ways, with new oil deposits in the Midwestern United States being discovered recently that were previously inaccessible with the mining technology available then.
Safety in the coal mining industry has moved up in the political agenda in both the Western and Asian markets. Mine safety is continually improving, and there is a growing willingness on the part of international organizations to support initiatives to improve health and safety. Mining is investing in long term growth. Since commodities are needed in every economy, this industry has a positive future outlook.