A group of researchers are using a contentious theory to communicate the idea that many metals we rely on could hit peak production and soon run out. Action, they say, is needed.
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15 Jun 2010 - 5:12 PM  UPDATED 23 Aug 2013 - 2:09 PM

We can't live without metals. They seem to be in almost everything we use, and we've been digging them up for thousands of years.

But virgin metal supplies are finite.

In the 1950's, an American geoscientist came up with the term 'peak oil', to describe the moment when the maximum rate of petrol extraction from the earth would be hit - and academics in Australia are starting to talk about the very same problems faced by our metal mining industry.

Marion King Hubbert claimed that oil production in US mainland states would peak between 1965 and 1970. In the end, production in most US states is widely agreed to have peaked in 1971.

But in his native Texas, the year was 1972. And half a world away that same year, the young Club of Rome think tank was gathering attention with The Limits to Growth, a book causing a stir by confronting the issue of finite resources.

The Club of Rome is widely held as one of the kick-starters in the debate over minerals sustainability.

And while many metals can be recycled, whereas oil cannot, scientists are using the concept to deliver an understanding of the impacts of mining to the wider public.

Put simply, the extraction of virgin ores from the earth's crust will peak - indeed, it already has for many.

Although the theory is not without its detractors, there is no doubt that the metals that drive our society are finite resources - and extracting them from the earth has to end.

The question is what countries like Australia, who have a gross domestic product so linked to mining, will do in such a scenario. (Click here to see which minerals dominate production.)

'Peak oil' theory itself, in operation, will directly influence the mining and minerals industry through rising fuel costs, each increase edging away at the sustainability of the process.

Why does it matter to Australia?

Australia has long seen itself as the lucky country - mining has been part of the national psyche since Westerners, accompanied by large numbers of Chinese, forged a new and dangerous path in the nineteenth century.

From the Eureka stockade to the national concern at the well being of Rio Tinto executives who find themselves heading for Chinese jail cells, mining is a part of many constructs of Australian identity.

And in the 21st century, it represents a massive part of Australia's economy.

In the financial year 2008/09, mining and energy exports together (for energy, think coal) represented over 55 per cent of the country's exports - AU$160bn, says ABARE.

A full 7.7 per cent of our economy can be put down to mining. According to the ABS, only manufacturing, at 9.4 per cent accounts for more - and a large portion of that is the manufacturing of mined resources. There is debate surrounding coal production- undoubtedly due to its impact on carbon reduction targets. Yet we produce more metal, if iron ore is factored in.

Many economists fear that this reliance on mining is hugely risky, even leading us to what is known as a resource curse.

Some academics argue that nickel sulphite, copper and gold, which we are already mining more than we are finding, could have already peaked.

Gavin Mudd at Monash University shows that in the early 2000s, Copper, Gold, Nickel, Silver, Lead and Zinc mining in Australia all hit highs in terms of production before falling back - some to go on and peak again when new reserves were mined.

The ABS, via the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, keeps statistics on the amount production and exploration of metals and other minerals.

But global estimates on future supplies can never be considered accurate because it's impossible to know how much of a given substance will be 'known' decades in advance, particularly with the introduction of new, still uninvented, technologies.

To add to the confusion where global supplies are known, countries such as China and Russia just don't publish readily available data.

For many metals, particularly rare earth metals, we simply don't have an adequate global assessment of stocks.Will supplies run out?

Most scientists and industry representatives agree that we're unlikely to reach the point where industries and services suddenly shut down to the lack of a certain metal.

The market would drive up prices ensuring not all resources were bought, they say, substitutes may be found, and new technologies could always lead us to more for the places that those dwindling resources were 'most required.'

But the problem is that the consequences of finding it, extracting it, and processing, it will be far, far too costly to be worth carrying out.

Put simply, some analysts say, mining is rapidly moving from being easy and cheap, to complex and increasingly expensive in a range of ways.

What's the problem?

And while Australia's resources will not be exhausted next year, and perhaps not even in the next decade, ore grades are getting thinner and thinner.

The costs of this - financial, environmental, and social - are already being felt.

"We're finding that they're deeper, the ores themselves are complex and harder to process, they're further from transport, and so they're coming with higher costs", says Damien Giurco, Research Director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at Sydney's Unviersity of Technology,

According to a new report from the Institute, Peak Minerals in Australia, the intensity of processing Australia's resources has risen by over 50 per cent in the last decade alone.

And while attempts to reduce Australia's carbon emissions will never reach some of the more ambitious targets proffered, considering the tax breaks offered to mining companies, another big problem for Australia is water consumption.

An increasingly precious resource in Australia, mining is a water-heavy industry. It consumes and pollutes water.

Ironically, modern mining techniques that attempt to carry out most of the mining 'underground', to avoid the more unsightly open-cut mining, often only add to the problem due to their increased water intensity.

There's also increased tension over land use. Conflicts between miners and farmers, not to mention indigenous inhabitants of remote regions, are not going to go away overnight.

In the end, Australia will need to confront these issues with more gusto than it has up to this point.

The economic dangers of a reliance on mining, which could lead to a 'resource curse' , are coupled with a real need to consider recycling materials at an increased rate.

Metals might still be attainable next year, and the year after. But a shift in attitudes will inevitably be needed.

It's about thinking what we should use our finite resources for, says Giurco.

'Are we using aluminium for wrapping up our lunch in the morning, or for constructing wind turbines?'