With turbulent market conditions often striking hard at Australia’s resources industry, the recent jump in coal price presented a ray of hope for companies and potential workers alike. It has seen the revival of shuttered mines both in Australia and overseas, such as Glencore’s Integra underground coal mine in NSW and its Collinsville mine in QLD.
But it’s not just coal miners that are reaping the rewards, as the announcement of new mines such as Rocklands shows more far-reaching benefits.
Located around 15 kilometres west of Cloncurry in north-west Queensland, Rocklands – part owned by majority shareholder China Oceanwide International – is expected to create more than 200 jobs for the region, as well as hundreds more from the economic flow on effects.
Amid the near-stifling heat was an air of undeniable excitement from both Australian and Chinese shareholders alike, who were present to witness the event.
Speaking at the event opening, Cudeo managing director Dr. Dianmen Chen said it was a historic occasion for the company, with the opening of their first mine.
“This marks our company’s successful transition from explorer to developer,” he said.
High grade copper
The overall project contains 11 ore bodies – one of the most significant being Las Minerals – which contain high grades of native copper. It also features a three million tonnes per annum processing plant with a crushing circuit, high pressure grinding rollers (HPGR), scrubber, gravity circuit, ball mill, floatation circuit, a filter plant, and a tailing storage facility.
Peter Hutchison, a member of Cudeco’s board of directors, said one of the major challenges during development was determining the grade of the mine.
“The large nuggets of native copper that are present that makes it very hard to estimate the amount that’s in the ground,” he told Australian Mining.
Even more difficult, he said, was finding a way to process the amount of native copper they had.
“The other challenge [was] being able to process that material and recover it efficiently. Most copper mines have some native copper, it’s only a small amount. A bit more and it’s difficult to deal with.
“But in our case, it’s such a large proportion of the ore body that we had to establish a process to be able to move it in a saleable from.”
Cudeco general manager of operations, Mark Roberts, further emphasised the challenges of processing native copper, adding that several mines do not have the money to invest in smelting it.
“The native copper is quite impressive but it is quite difficult to process,” he said.
“I’ve never seen native copper like this in my life.”
The site’s processing facility is also home to a cobalt/pyrite and a magnetite circuit, however these are yet to be commissioned particularly due to the low cobalt price.
“Cobalt product is not generating a lot of revenue so we’re not commissioning those plants in this point in time,” Roberts said.
This was echoed by Hutchison who said when they first settled on cobalt, it was $150 a pound but now it was around $10.
“Cobalt prices are quite depressed at the moment,” Hutchison said.
Prior to the opening, the mine already achieved significant milestones this year. On October 17, it sent its first shipment of native copper via the Port of Townsville to China, followed a few weeks later by the first shipment of sulphide copper concentrate.
Now the company is on track to head into full scale production.
“We have now reached an important, more so critical, stage of ramping up our production in capacity,” Chen said during the opening.
But look back a bit further and the journey to development was marred by a few hiccups, namely by founding member and former CEO Wayne McRae whose colourful comments about the potential of Rocklands made more than a few headlines.
His time at the helm of the company ended last year after he was ousted by Chinese investors who claimed they were no longer confident in his ability to successfully manage the company.
A commitment to the local community
One of the most notable features of the mine is the company’s commitment to having a no fly in fly out policy in an attempt to increase local employment.
“Due to our policy of not encouraging fIy in fly out workers, the vast majority of our workforce are based here in Cloncurry. This means more economic benefit for Cloncurry,” Chen said.
This mirrors the Queensland government’s recent push to ban 100 per cent FIFO workers on large resource projects. Tabled by the state’s natural resources and mines minister Anthony Lynham, the proposed law will apply to projects 100km or less from the regional centres. It is designed to protect worker health and wellbeing and give locals the opportunity to seek employment closer to home.
Member for Mt Isa, Rob Katter, was pleased with the decision to minimise FIFO workers at Rocklands as it would benefit nearby communities.
“We love having development out here as long as there’s payback into the local communities and payback is jobs that we want and desperately need,” he said.
With a new mine comes not only jobs, but a potential boost to the state and national economy as well. China’s investment in Rocklands is another peg in a string of resources agreements with Australia, reinforcing its place as the country’s biggest trading partner.
Counsul Jian, director of the economic and commercial office of the Chinese consulate said China’s investment in Australia almost breached $76 billion dollars, with more than 60 Chinese companies investing in QLD.
Speaking at the opening, she said, “I’m glad to see my Chinese colleagues working very closely with the Australian partners and I really hope that we can work even closer in the future for the prosperous development of this copper [mine],” she said.
China’s investment in the mine also comes as part of their country’s ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) policy which aims to develop stronger economic ties with Australia as well as Eurasia and Africa. Its goals include strengthening investment and trade relations and developing infrastructure and facilities. The ‘Belt’ refers to linking countries in Central Asia to China, as well as a long term mission of creating railways to connect China to Europe. The other part refers to a maritime ‘Road’ through the development of key ports to provide more access through the Indian Ocean.
While the initiative may pave the way for greater cooperation with China, it has also been criticised for its use as a means to potentially dominate smaller economies.
Nonetheless, the Australian government is welcoming the investment, as minister acting for the premier on north Queensland, Coralee O’Rourke, told Australian Mining it provides confidence for other investment opportunities in the state.
“This is going to provide the opportunity for people to start thinking ‘Okay this is where we want to invest’,” she said.
However, there are still some issues yet to be resolved now that the mine has opened.
Katter pointed to the monopoly of power supply in the area as it is not connected to the national electricity grid. While the site recently installed a powerline, supply is still one of the issues to be assessed, with Katter further mentioning the possibility of installing a rail line at the site as well.
To assist with these, and wider resources industry issues, the state government recently established the Northwest Minerals Task Force – a combination of mining companies and explorers, industry peak bodies, government, and traditional owners that sets out recommendations and identifies key opportunities to increase mining in the state.
“We know that the new wave of exploration activity and innovative approaches will be needed to unlock this new generation of mines which is why we have established the north west minerals province task force and are currently considering a series of recommendations from the taskforce to help overcome barriers and challenges to exploration and production in the region,” O’Rourke said.
Resilience now and into 2017
The company’s long term plan is to expand into Phase Two of Rocklands project, extending into a 30 year mine life and this further signals a renewed confidence in the sector.
The opening of Rocklands reflected the resilience of people in the north west, with Katter comparing Cudeco to Mt Isa mines and its 95-year life. He commented on the rewards that can happen if companies remained with developments throughout its difficulties.
“That’s what can happen if you push ahead and you’re aggressive with these developments and you stick with it,” he said.
“It embodies the spirit of the people in the northwest and how we’ve come to be out here in the first place; anything from the single miners themselves to the big developers, that’s what you gotta do if you wanna make something out here. I think Cudeco is a pretty good example of that.”
Katter went on to say, “This is not a finish line here at all, this is a starting point for development in the North West.”
With the year coming to a close, perhaps 2017 will see even more mines in the region.