IT would be difficult to nominate a premier issue facing WA’s minerals sector. This week exporters have been redoing sums against a rising Australian dollar and, over the past two years, security issues have become more widespread.
Other well-known scenarios, be they evergreen or cyclic, remain – smaller explorers need greater investment support, commodity price forecasts continue to wax and wane, consolidation proceeds at different speeds in individual sectors and consultants report a services and project development boom.
Perhaps the most common link within the sector is looming operational change dictated by external policy and social perception.
Within Western Australia the minerals industry enjoys a high community profile in terms of State revenue, regional employment and rural development.
Environmental Resources Management executive director Ros Kelly told a Perth audience last week that in no other capital city in Australia would the minerals industry attract the presence of the State Premier to an event such as the annual general meeting of the Chamber of Minerals and Energy.
Nonetheless, Ms Kelly told her audience that on a global scale the industry had not sufficiently engaged its stakeholders and the wider community, the very ones who would dictate perception and influence policy.
Nor had the industry effectively communicated all that it did well, what it offered communities and individuals, and advances made in such areas as environmental management and site rehabilitation.
Hence, the number one issue facing the global minerals industry was that of coming to grips with the notion of sustainability, which encompassed broader stakeholder engagement and more sophisticated and targeted communication.
“Sustainable development is about managing business risk,” she said.
As chair of the Minerals Council of Australia’s External Sustainable Development Advisory Group, and leader of the Australian delegation to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit while Federal Environment Minister, Ms Kelly has considered the notion of sustainability, and how it plays out, over a long period.
Her defined view, that of proactive corporate decision-making in an environment of stakeholder engagement, is one already adopted in numerous ways by WA operators and the Chamber of Minerals and Energy.
In this year’s Bedrock of the Economy report, the chamber has couched current and future challenges in sustainability terms, at the same time putting a case for its own ongoing existence.
This was backed up by chief executive Tim Shanahan in the chamber’s annual report.
Mr Shanahan identified risk identification and action planning as a key component of the chamber’s role.
The Bedrock report is clear that the WA industry has faced and continues to face both operational and profitability challenges.
One of these, a shortage of appropriately skilled personnel, is partly due to community perceptions about the industry.
Attracting students and trainees to the sector has been difficult when the common perception is that of a dangerous industry, operating in undesirable locations, deficient in defined career paths, lacking in opportunities for females, and environmentally on the nose.
Sons of Gwalia chairman and former chamber president Peter Lalor said the industry had made huge gains in safety.
But WA has recorded three minerals industry deaths this calendar year and Mr Lalor acknowledges: “One death is unacceptable”.
“The industry has made giant steps, but we must improve and redouble our efforts.
“This is an absolutely critical area.”
Being “way up with the best” is nonetheless insufficient whenever there is death and injury, newly elected president Kim Horne stressed.
Flagged changes in State Government policy are also throwing up some concerns for the industry’s profitability.
The chamber is actively seeking reassurances on proposed changes to water charges and on air service operations to remote and rural communities.
Chamber director policy and external relations David Parker said the WA minerals industry still struggled with water supply adequacy while paying the State an annual $1 billion and was keen not to have further charges reduce its competitiveness.
A State review on working hours also has the chamber active, lobbying for the flexibility it says the industry requires for its unique operations in varying geographic locations.
Timely access to land, warden’s court delays, and the cost of heritage surveys also continue to frustrate exploration and expansion plans, chamber members report.
Meanwhile the larger end of the industry is pushing both State and Federal Governments for more infrastructure support, planning, and regulatory guidance that takes into account potential growth and new downstream activity.
An energy-intensive industry, players operating within local, national and international spheres, are also calling for clear, concise and complementary greenhouse regulations.
Change and challenge will continue, but on one local sustainability test case, Ms Kelly remained silent. She twice declined to comment on the front-end environmental, social and economic review of the proposed gas development on Barrow Island.
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