The Future Of

Sustainable Resources | Prof. Michael Hitch

Episode Summary

How will our resource use and mining operations change as we move towards a sustainable, decarbonised future?

Episode Notes

How will our resource use and mining operations change as we move towards a sustainable, decarbonised future? 

In this episode, Jessica is joined by Professor Michael Hitch, the Head of Curtin University’s renowned Western Australian School of Mines: Minerals, Energy and Chemical Engineering (WASM: MECE). The school has for the past six years ranked as the world’s second-best mining school in the QS World University Rankings by Subject. 

Together, they unpack how the mining industry is shifting towards a greater focus on economic sufficiency, social wellbeing and biophysical integrity. 

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Professor Michael Hitch is the Head of WASM: MECE. Prior to beginning his academic career, he had 20 years of industry experience, which saw him travel frequently around the globe. 

Professor Hitch has extensively studied the benefits of the circular economy model, Social Licenses to Operate, sequestering human-caused carbon dioxide emissions and extracting valuable byproducts in mining processes.

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Behind the scenes

This episode came to fruition thanks to the combined efforts of:

Jessica Morrison, Host

Anita Shore, Executive Producer

Annabelle Fouchard, Producer and Recordist

Daniel Jauk, Episode Researcher and Editor

Alexandra Eftos, Assistant Producer

Amy Hosking, Social Media.


Curtin University supports academic freedom of speech. The views expressed in The Future Of podcast may not reflect those of Curtin University.

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Episode Transcription

Jessica Morrison:          00:00                This is The Future Of, where experts share their vision of the future and how their work is helping shape it for the better. I'm Jessica Morrison. Through the extraction of vital resources, mining is essential to the existence of our physical infrastructure like buildings and power grids, and modern technology like mobile phones. But now with increasing calls to adopt more sustainable practises, what will mining operations look like in the future? In this episode, I was joined by Professor Michael Hitch, the head of Curtin University's WA School of Mines: Minerals, Energy and Chemical Engineering. The school has for several years ranked as the world's second best mining school in the QS World University Rankings by Subject. We chatted about how the resources sector is transitioning to the circular economy model, the need for mining companies to consider their social license to operate, as well as Michael's own personal story from industry to academia. If you'd like to find out more about this research, you can visit the links provided in the shownotes. This episode was recorded remotely due to COVID.

Jessica Morrison:          01:11                Michael in recent years, there's been a lot of discussion about how the resources sector needs to move to a circular economy model. What do you think the main benefits of this model are and where is the sector as you transitioning to it?

Prof. Michael Hitch:      01:24                Thanks, Jess. The circular model is an alternative to the linear model that we're accustomed to which is: produce, use and dispose. The idea of circularity is that we produce, we use, but we never really dispose. Or if we dispose, we dispose in a way that the manufactured good can be disaggregated or pulled apart and put back into the production stream. Where it fits into the resources sector and the product flow, is the idea about waste. And in mining and in the resources sector in general, we produce a lot of waste. And we call it 'waste', but really it's just 'broken rock'. And we either have to put it into dumps or ultimately into tailings ponds. So the idea is that in the circular model is that waste actually has value. It's no longer something that we call 'waste'. It's basically a production byproduct.

Prof. Michael Hitch:      02:26                And if we can up value that to a point, even that it's worth more than the material that was produced generating that waste, that's circularity. The circular model as we know it, is actually a very static one. There's really very little room for economic growth, but when we start upvaluing waste, we actually can start growing economies, and it's a much more dynamic, but also a more holistic view. At the end of the day, it's about resource utilisation and resource stewardship. That if we're going to go in and we're going to disturb the land, we're going to take everything. We're not just going to take the good stuff, but we're going to find a way to extract value from everything that we actually take out of the ground, including the material that generally doesn't have economic value.

Jessica Morrison:          03:17                Which mining companies exhibit the best environmentally sustainable practises in your mind?

Prof. Michael Hitch:      03:24                Boy, that's hard to say. The 'Big End of Town' as it's known here in Western Australia do a really, really good job. They have programs and they have specialists that are really focused on this idea. The idea of sustainability of course, is looking at biophysical integrity, it's about economic sufficiency for as many stakeholders as possible, but most importantly it's social wellbeing to make sure that the affected communities are not affected in a particularly negative way, and in fact that they actually benefit from the development of the mining operation. So I refer to the Big End of Town for sure, but there are fantastic examples of mid tier and even small companies that are really, really doing a good job in the sustainability part.

Jessica Morrison:          04:12                What are some things, just examples of what some of these companies in the Big End of Town or the mid-to-small-tier companies are doing? What are some examples of things that they're producing from the byproduct of mining?

Prof. Michael Hitch:      04:24                Well, one of the really cool things that's happening and it's happening around BHP at this particular time is, they're looking at their tailings. And tailings are those things or that material that is produced once you've extracted the mineral of interest. So you've taken the metallic stuff out, in this case in nickel, then you have effectively sand that you're putting into an impoundment and these tailings are chemically neutral so if they just sit there, they're not going to cause anybody any problem and they're not going to have a negative effect on the environment per se. But the really cool part of this is that, that sandy material is reactive when it is in contact with CO2. So if the particle, the sand particle, is in contact with CO2, it changes its chemistry. It changes from CO2 to a carbonate, which is a mineral form of carbon and a mineral form of CO2 effectively. And it's thermodynamically stable for about 100,000 years.

Prof. Michael Hitch:      05:33                So in effect, the waste product that's being produced from nickel mining could eventually become a product that sequesters CO2, that qualifies for carbon offset credits, and it also can be turned into ultimately building products, or animal feed, or food fillers or paint thickeners. So it has three benefits, actually four benefits, I suppose: it sequesters CO2, you can produce an alternate product, you can generate CO2 offset credits and your mining operation has a much smaller footprint because the tailings that you are producing don't just sit there. Then the fact you'll be able to use them for alternate purposes. So again, this is a great sustainability story, it's a perfect example of circularity because again, waste all of a sudden has economic value, and social value and environmental value. So it covers the three legs of the sustainability stool, right? Which is economic sufficiency, biophysical integrity and social wellbeing.

Jessica Morrison:          06:48                If we're thinking about the future of mining, I mean mining, if we are thinking just in WA or even in Australia, sometimes has a bit of a bad name, gets a bit of a bad rep, right? But is sustainability the only way that it can have a viable future?

Prof. Michael Hitch:      07:04                Again, it depends on how you define sustainability. Sustainability as a term has become a bit 'diffuse' would be a word, and I would put that in air quotes. That of course the original definition that we're all accustomed to came out of the Brundtland report, in United Nations work that they did back in the early-to-mid 90s, in a report called Our Common Future. And the definition that we know is basically being able to carry on what we do today without sacrificing the needs of future generations. There's a next sentence to that, that people don't really want to talk about, and that is if it's economically feasible to do so. Just conveniently that doesn't seem to get mentioned by some. But the mining sector in Western Australia in particular is very good at their sustainability practise. We have challenges of course with local communities, but again, it's about developing a platform which local communities can thrive in, whether that's small business development or alternate business development that will exist and carry on once the mine has closed.

Prof. Michael Hitch:      08:22                We're really fortunate here again, in particularly in the Pilbara where these mines are very long lived. And in many cases, those communities become very dependent on mining. But it's really important to make sure that those communities are prepared for when mining ends. So alternate business, again transformative business, and industrial activity is really, really important.

Jessica Morrison:          08:48                Really fascinating. I'm from a mining town myself in WA, and certainly something close to home when you talk about that and longevity of the towns. You touched on earlier: social sustainability. So obviously we know sustainability as you said, doesn't just refer to the environment, it also refers to people. You've written a lot about the importance of companies needing a 'Social License to Operate'. What is this license and why is it important going to the future?

Prof. Michael Hitch:      09:14                Social license is a metaphor. There's really no such thing as a social license, nobody runs up to you and gives you a piece of paper and says, "Here's your license, congratulations." What it is, is it's a way of describing a relationship. And it's about trust. It's about a trust that's built between a mining company or any industrial proponent, for that matter it could be a shoe factory for all it cares. But it's that relationship between the industrial proponent and the affected communities or communities of interest. And it is this trust. The way I like to describe it is what if you change the words 'social license' to 'love'? "I've achieved love", or "We're working towards love". And it really, really changes the notion of what social license is.

Prof. Michael Hitch:      10:04                So social license effectively is acceptance, it's acceptance of the various roles and responsibilities each party has to play in the relationship, it's about being clear and truthful in communication, it's about the industrial proponent bringing the communities of interest into the tent. Effectively bringing them into the planning process, bringing them into operations, to be able to be clear and transparent. But it's also about the industrial proponent of being clear and honest when something goes wrong. If something goes wrong and there's an accident of any sort, which happens from time to time, that they're communicating with the community in a timely and effective manner. So it's like any relationship, it's like a relationship that you may have with your partner, if anybody's withholding something or if anybody's being untruthful or not forthcoming, then the quality of that relationship deteriorates. So it's very fixed. It's like love and it's like trust, that social license takes a lot of steps and a lot of patience to approximate. You never really achieve it, I believe, but you get closer.

Jessica Morrison:          11:29                Everyone strives.

Prof. Michael Hitch:      11:30                You kind of get warmer, right?

Jessica Morrison:          11:33                Yeah.

Prof. Michael Hitch:      11:33                It takes a lot of time, and a lot of patience, and a lot of hard work to get to anything that you can say, "We're doing a good job." But it's very quick to lose, it's really quick to lose trust in these sort of circumstances and it's almost impossible to regain. So once you blow it, you really blow it big time.

Jessica Morrison:          11:55                What challenges do you think developing nations specifically face when it comes to this transition, when we're talking about the social license or the relationships with people, et cetera?

Prof. Michael Hitch:      12:07                Boy, I've travelled a lot in my career. I hate to tell you how many countries, but it's definitely three figures. And I've definitely seen the good, the bad and the ugly of what mining can do. And since I started my career back in 1984, I suppose, the world has changed. We've had the advent of the internet, we have a lot more social activism, we have a lot more NGO activity and ENGOs in particular, both at the local level but also it's kind of what I call the supernational level, the big guys like Sierra, et cetera, and World Wildlife Fund and so forth. So these have all come to be what in developing nations, the first part of, I think, of the discussion is 'governance systems'. That the nation has to have a governance system that lays out the rules and responsibilities of perhaps international companies coming into their country and how they're going to interact with local communities.

Prof. Michael Hitch:      13:16                And we see that social license and social behaviour or corporate behaviour is far more effective in countries that do have that governance platform. It's a policy issue really more than anything else, but it's also about the company themselves. In Canada, for example, if a Canadian mining company is going overseas to work, they're held by the standards of the Canadian law and Canadian policy. So if they go in and they're a bunch of crazy cowboys, then they'll be held accountable in Canada against Canadian standards. So that's a really a cool thing, and I think that's really important. And in Australia we have some of the highest environmental standards in the world. And as long as we're adhering to those and we respect those, and we're operating at those high levels, everything should be pretty good.

Jessica Morrison:          14:13                Now, let's talk about your journey Michael, you started in industry first. So what made you want to move to research?

Prof. Michael Hitch:      14:21                Boy.

Jessica Morrison:          14:21                I like to ask the hard questions.

Prof. Michael Hitch:      14:25                That's a fabulous question. I had a weak moment? No. I was really fortunate. I've had an absolutely amazing career and I owe it to a lot of people. A lot of people had faith in me, a lot of people mentored me, I guess at the right time at the right place? What I often say to people and particularly people that are going through their career journey and starting off, for example, is I say, "If someone offers you an opportunity, the first words out of your mouth is 'yes'. Never say 'no', just 'yes'. 'Yes' to everything, because it builds up your toolbox." So I was really fortunate, again, from being a field geologist, to being in operations, to being in corporate and then running my own company to being an investment banker, to being a hired gun by other investment funds to go in and fix other companies.

Prof. Michael Hitch:      15:28                So again, it took me all over the world, it helped me build this really cool toolbox. When I was about 42, I was in a position where I could semi-retire and I wanted to give something back. So I decided to do a PhD part-time, which was insane. I would never recommend that to anybody, especially if you have two young kids and a very ... well, you have to have a very patient partner for sure. And then I started off all over again as the lowest of the low, junior level academic and I built my way up through that. But really the notion was to give something back to young people. Again, I had great opportunities, I had great mentors, people really helped me along the way. And I really felt compelled to help young people in the same way that others helped me.

Jessica Morrison:          16:18                I love that. That's a really, really nice story. Really lovely. Look, in your opinion as the head of Curtin University's WA School of Mines: Minerals, Energy and Chemical Engineering, what role is Western Australia going to play in this new sustainable resource future? Or what role are we already playing?

Prof. Michael Hitch:      16:36                WA punches well above its fighting weight. We produce most of the material that is going to be required to build the infrastructure of the future. And this is the really important part that we have to focus on, is that the materials that we produce, the iron ore, the specialty metals, nickel, again, lithiums and all these other sort of things, are the things that are important in building that infrastructure. Right now we have infrastructure that was basically designed in the 1950s and '60s, and we're starting to see it crumble. It was probably only designed to live for 50 or 60 years, and we've extended it to 100 years, for example, to make it work. Probably not that long, but certainly a long time. So we have a lot of corrosion, rebar inside of cement and it starts limiting our societal growth.

Prof. Michael Hitch:      17:32                If we're talking about this decarbonised energy transition, it's going to require a completely different suite, and, I hate the phrase, but 'out-of-the-box thinking' in terms of the infrastructure that we're going to require, in order to make that happen. WA produces that. So by far we're leading the way in the production of what we call 'critical materials'. I move away from the list that's provided out of Canberra because I think things like water is critical, I think sand is critical. So I move away from maybe the sexy metals to think about even the mundane stuff that is really, really important. So we do that really well here, remarkably well. What we also should be doing is taking that knowledge that we have, and we've developed the safest practise, we're good in the environmental stuff, we're really, really good at the social stuff here, is starting to export that knowledge to places that need that extra push or need that extra help.

Prof. Michael Hitch:      18:41                And we have this intellectual capital that is something, a commodity unto itself, that we should be, again, pushing into lesser developed nations, I shouldn't say the word 'pushing', but certainly offering into lesser developed nations to help them improve their practise, to make sure that they're on a sustainable pathway going forward. So it's an amazing place to be. I am so happy to be here.

Jessica Morrison:          19:06                It is. It certainly is. Look, overall, how would you personally like our sustainable resource use in mining operations to look like in the future? Big question. Blue sky thinking!

Prof. Michael Hitch:      19:17                Wow. If I could wave my magic wand, and again there will be people with pitchforks and torches outside my window really, really soon. But for me, sustainable resource use is about mining what we need, not mining that is economically advantageous because of market conditions. Because we only have so much mineral endowment and if we mine it all now, what are we going to mine in 50 years? So I'm kind of the mind that if the world ... and we need to get a handle on: "What are the resource needs to have a sustainable future?" This is a big answer to a big question, right? If we know what the world's going to require in terms of steel, how much steel are we going to need in the next 25 years? Then we will mine and develop mines that will provide the iron ore to produce the steel for the next 25 years, that's what I believe.

Prof. Michael Hitch:      20:20                So we need to stage our mineral development. We can't develop it all now and just run rampant because we don't have power distribution, we don't have the human resources to operate all these things. And I think that if you start looking at cumulative impact in terms of environmental, social, and even economic, that's another issue that we have to start thinking about. It's one thing to look at a mining operation in its isolation. But if you look at 20, what is the difference? So again, we haven't really cracked that nut here in Australia on cumulative effect. But I think we need to look at our resource use, making sure that we're using all of the resource. And again, that's called 'material stewardship'. And I think we really have to be thinking about that.

Prof. Michael Hitch:      21:09                We have to come up with alternate models of the materials that we are producing. For example, with iron ore, then why don't we get into, I call it 'metals leasing'. So basically it's blockchain and supply chain management, where you're actually tracking that tonne of iron ore all the way through. And that the person using the steel to manufacture something actually just buys the steel for a short ... doesn't even buy the steel: they lease the steel. And then when the end of life for that product that was made from the steel was done, that product goes back to either the mining company or to the steel maker as scrap or recycled. And then basically it closes the circular economy as well. Again, long answer, big answer to a big question.

Jessica Morrison:          22:01                Fantastic. Thank you so much Michael, for chatting with me today. It's a really fascinating topic, obviously. The mining and resources sector in WA, in Australia and in parts of the world is just massive. Really thank you for your insight and expertise in this.

Prof. Michael Hitch:      22:17                Absolute pleasure. Thank you very much, Jess.

Jessica Morrison:          22:19                You've been listening to The Future Of, a podcast powered by Curtin University. If you've enjoyed this episode, please share it. And if you want to hear from more experts, stay up to date by subscribing to us on your favourite podcast app. Bye for now.