The Northern Territory – Australia’s new golden region?

Western Australia has always been seen as Australia's mining state. 
It's the place to work and the place to invest; its red soil synonymous with massive mining projects right around the world. 
Western Australia has always laid claim to being Australia's number one mining state – but it can't anymore. 
In one of the largest and most surprising surveys this year, Canada's Fraser Institute has named the Northern Territory as the country's best region in which to mine and invest in resources. 
The survey profiles 93 major mining regions around the world, surveying people in the industry and ranking the regions according to a number of criteria (see March 2012). 
Both the Northern Territory and Western Australia were just outside of the yearly survey's top ten, sitting at eleventh and twelfth respectively. 
 

Making moves 

So what has made the Northern Territory suddenly so attractive for miners, precipitating its swift move up the survey charts? 
And it has been a sudden move, as last year the Territory only scored 62.2 out 100 yet this year shot up to 81.5; rating ahead of Western Australia which sat on the same score. 
The key in the Territory's massive score hike is the Government's approach to mining and resources rather than actual mineral prospectiveness. 
The Northern Territory's minister for resources, Kon Vatskalis, said these results haven't come as a surprise for the region. 
"The ranking is the result of years of hard work and investment by the Department of Resources and the Northern Territory Government to promote exploration and mining activity in the NT," he said. 
He stated that these results have highlighted the region's "proactive approach to mineral and energy development, positive regulatory regime, and the efforts that have been made to raise the Territory's profile as a resource exploration destination and to attract international development to the Northern Territory". 
The Territory's $25.8 million Bringing Forward Discovery initiative was touted by Vatskalis as a prime example. 
"This program of new geoscience and collaborative funding for exploration is now reaping its own rewards, and coupled with our International Investment Attraction Strategy is showing real dividends, and letting the world know that the Northern Territory is open for business. 
"In fact over $228 million was spent on exploration during 2011 which is a record for the NT and a reflection of how successful our initiatives such as Bringing Forward Discovery have been," he said. 
Resources also play a much greater role in the Northern Territory's economy than other mining powerhouses. 
"Mining (also) contributes to a quarter of the Territory's economy," Vatskalis said, "which is almost four times the national average." 
Vatskalis exclaimed: "the survey suggests that the mining and exploration industry's perceptions of the Territory's attractiveness as an exploration investment destination have increased over the past year, both in a global context and also relative to other Australian jurisdictions. 
"The survey results also show that the NT has developed one of the best regulatory environments to operate in. Our regulatory framework has been further under-pinned by recent amendments to the Mining Management Act, which places greater scrutiny on environmental performance and reporting," he added. 
"Despite these changes the Territory still ranked highly in this field, vindicating the Government decisions in this area." 
 

The real view from the ground up 

While a region's politicians are always ready to spruik how spectacular a region is, to get a clearer picture of what mining is really like, you have to speak to the operators on the ground. 
Speaking to Rob Atkin­son the CEO of Energy Resources Australia (which operates in the Northern Territory), he told Australian Mining what it is like to mine the region. 
"I may be a little biased as we've been here in the Territory 30 years, but we've got a strong working relationship with those in the region, we've found the government approachable and they do support mining projects," Atkinson said. 
"We feel very comfortable running a mining ­business in the Northern Territory." 
ERA operates the Ranger uranium mine. 
While the region is known for uranium, it also has strong gold reserves.  
"The Territory is also currently experiencing rec­ord levels of exploration for gold, which is very exciting and is likely to lead to more gold mines in the Territory over the coming decade," Vatskalis said. 
He added that there is also copper, gold, rare earths, phosphate and ferro­alloys in the region. 
Speaking to one of these gold and copper focused exploration companies, Westgold, they explained that the Territory and Western Australia are fairly similar regions in which to work. 
Unlike ERA, which has been operating solely in the Territory, Westgold has a broader view of the subject as it has projects in both Western Australia – near Murchinson, and in the Northern Territory close to Tennant Creek. 
Westgold managing director Scott Huffadine told Australian Mining "in terms of policy point of view, the two regions are on par. 
"While it's easy in Western Australia as long as you follow protocols, we have found that it is easier to negotiate in regards to environmental frameworks in the Territory," Huffadine explained. 
"There is really no problem with operating in either, and the fact that both rated so high on the Fraser survey, with the same score, shows just how on par they are." 
Westgold is currently working on the Rover copper gold project in the Northern Territory, in the historical mining region of Tennant Creek, which according to Huffadine is very prospective as new mining and exploration techniques are opening up areas that were previously inaccessible or hidden. 
"There is major potential for exploration and discovery in the Tennant Creek area; in fact all of the Northern Territory has a lot of potential." 
 

Empty potential? 

And it is this potential, particularly across the Territory's wide, unexplored tracts that is drawing so much interest ahead of traditional mining states. 
The Northern Territory may even overtake Western Australia if premier Colin Barnett's comments regarding the damage the GST sharing arrangements may have on the state come true. 
Barnett said WA may as well leave its minerals in the ground if its GST revenues continue to be stolen by Canberra and the other eastern states. 
"You've basically got Canberra and the east coast states stealing money from Western Australia and spreading it amongst themselves," he told Fairfax radio last month, adding that "for Western Australia, the logical thing would be to leave the minerals in the ground". 
He went on to say "the rate of mineral growth after this cycle of projects may not be so great". 
Barnett warned that the state may slow if there is no money to fund regional and rural development. 
"We're not going to allow resource development to run away at such a pace, when all the money goes to Canberra and we haven't got the capacity to match that economic development with social development," he stated. 
"I'm not going to stop approval of projects but the pace of development will not be a runaway train in this state." 

Leading the way 

Through a combination of actively pursuing overseas interests, developing and supporting exploration, and working with mining companies whilst at the same time still holding them accountable, the Northern Territory demonstrated how a formerly junior region can become one of the country's mineral leaders in the midst of a massive mining boom. 
The Northern Territory could act as a lesson for some of the eastern states in how to grow your mining industry, Victoria in particular. 
It should be noted that although the Territory was ahead on the listing, in ranking terms it drew level with Western Australia, with the state's mining minister Norman Moore stating that WA was among the top 20 mining jurisdictions in the world, with the State ranked equal 11th out of 93 jurisdictions, up six places from last year. 
Moore went on say that the jump comes despite the mining and carbon taxes set to hit the industry. 
"WA's reputation as the nation's leading state when it comes to attracting exploration and mining has been solidified again, thanks to the hard work of the State Government and the Department of Mines and Petroleum," Moore said. 
"The State Government's reforms to the approvals process have offered greater transparency and certainty for industry and this was reflected in the latest survey's results." 
The minister explained that programs such as the $80 million Exploration Incentive Scheme, which was funded by Royalties for Regions, played an important part in demonstrating the potential for exploration as well as driving the push for discovery in the state. 
Despite ranking slightly ahead in investment attractiveness the survey does go on to state that in pure minerals terms Western Australia lords it over the Territory, coming in at 11th globally with a score of .83 compared to the Northern Territory's placing at 49th with a score of .66, behind both Queensland and South Australia.

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