The Australian mining industry faces challenges in improving its social licence to operate in the face of mounting stakeholder scepticism and a demanding public. Globally, the mining industry has a mediocre reputation with community relations and environmental management. Australia has an opportunity to distinguish itself from this poor reputation, despite having made enhancements on the back of tighter regulation and a higher standard of corporate responsibility.
Amidst these challenges, there is an emerging yet absent skill set to manage our social licence within the technological and cultural shifts of social media. This represents an immediate requirement to manage this instantaneous media landscape, that threatens us irrespective of truth and facts.
The industrial revolution underpinned by coal and oil, has had a negative impact on the environment and particularly greenhouse gas emissions. Now that we are freeing ourselves of fossil fuel addiction and moving toward green technologies; we may be heading toward a new dependence on rare earth minerals. These metals are vital for the construction of high-tech equipment such as solar cells, lithium batteries, electric cars and smartphones. However, the need for these metals is likely to bring about additional negative social, economic and environmental effects.
In his book ‘’The Rare Metals War”, author Guillaume Pitron raises a number of interesting points about the manufacture and mining of rare earth minerals for the manufacture of our modern technologies and calls it the most ‘stunning greenwashing operation in history’. He cites the extraction and refining of rare earth minerals which produce 50% more greenhouse gases than air transport and argues that the manufacture of rare earths at Mountain Pass in America and La Rochelle in France were so highly polluting that mining and production was moved to China.
Now China holds a near monopoly of the rare earths production. Production of electric engines, electronics and magnets is likely to require a doubling of rare earth extraction every 15 years, which Pitron postulates will cause a shortage of rare earths and will underpin the next world conflict. Previous commodity shortages have led to conflict, as per oil in the Middle East.
The environmental impact of rare earth mining from some 600 sites across China is massive. Pitron states that 10% of China’s arable land is contaminated by heavy metals, 80% of its ground water is not fit for human consumption. In addition, only 5% of 500 biggest cities meet international standards for air quality and air pollution contributes to 1.6 million deaths a year. On top of this, China emits 28% of global greenhouse gases.
Pitron references the Blacksmith Institute report which states that the mining industry is the second most polluting industry in the world behind lead acid battery recycling. See: 10 Most Polluting Industries . Simply by association, this a sad indictment on the mining industry in general.
Despite Australia’s steady improvements in environmental management practices and the use of cleaner metallurgical processing technologies; in the public’s eye it is considered to be just as negative as the Chinese mining industry. The notoriety of sites such as Wittenoom, Rum Jungle and Mt Lyell also does not help the public perception of the Australian mining industry.
This negative perception of the mining industry means that Australian mines start off on the backfoot in their attempts to manage their social licence to operate. The global rare earth industry needs to be distinguished from the booming Australian rare earth industry lest our mines be painted with the same brush.
So how does a well-meaning Australian mining company distinguish itself from their less than stellar counterparts in the industry and the damaging image portrayed by Guillaume Pitron?
The mining company must:
- Use the precautionary principle
- Demonstrate their environmental integrity
- Address the concerns of the communities in which they operate
- Obtain and keep a Social Licence to Operate
- Achieve the rehabilitation obligations that your stakeholders expect.
The inherent characteristics of social media in being anonymous, instantaneous and interactive can be detrimental to a mining company’s social licence.
Chris Kenny recently encapsulated this in his article Rational Debate Drowning in the Social Media Swamp (The Weekend Australian 13th -14th March 2021) that discusses social media and the ‘sewer’ of false news and facts that coarsens our discourse.
“At its core is a lack of accountability. The enticement of being able to post widely and often about anything – without submitting to editor, curators, lawyers or peers – encourages bravado and aggression, and it fosters an impetuousness that values gut feeling over facts, devalues the time and effort required to get across the facts.”
“In short, all the usual flaws of human conversation and debate are at play, but they are exacerbated by the instantaneous nature, wide audience, and lack of responsibility, inherent in the platforms. Judgements are made and allegations thrown around, without regard for facts, by people ignorant of or untroubled by the laws of defamation or contempt.
This freedom could liberate debate; but instead of letting a flowers bloom, it shares the scrawls of a thousand dunny doors.”
Chris Kenny makes a number of points that the mining industry needs be aware of in social media:
- Fake news and unsubstantiated allegations
- Its instantaneous nature; and
- The anonymity of people behind it.
For the industry to mitigate against this risk, companies need to monitor and respond to social media with an established strategic action plan.
Is your company prepared to control the risk of social media?
Learn about this and more at LandTrack Systems Improving Community Relations Workshop.
Register now at www.landtrack.com.au/training or call 1300 659454.
LandTrack Systems has trained the industry for 2 years in the following courses: