Q: What happens when we exploit all the mineral resources? What happens when deposits around the world start depleting?

Simple answer is yes and no. Mineral resources are finite, however, the resource pool is so vast that it tends to feel like infinite. Reserves are finite at FIXED level of price; FIXED level of input cost, FIXED level of technology, and a fixed level of SOCIETAL demand. Since all these components are continuously changing, the equilibrium between resource and reserve keeps changing. So several economic components affect the “global reserve” of any mineral or any natural resource.

– by Dr. Amit Tripathi

These questions were asked by our students Varun Shastri of Sagar University and T. Gokul of Annamalai University. So special thanks to them for inspiring this article

These questions feed into a broader question of “Are mineral resources finite?”

Simple answer is yes and no. Mineral resources are finite, however, the resource pool is so vast that it tends to feel like infinite. At this point we should start making a distinction between resource and reserve. Often, when we say resource in common conversation, we actually are referring to reserve. Reserve is economically recoverable resource. Reserve is a subset of resources and is a lot more finite than resource. Economically recoverable means that, global reserve is finite at a particular price point. As soon as we bring economics in to the equation things start becoming exponentially more complex. Economics is governed by several variables that are continuously changing. Consequently, resources get converted to reserves and vice-versa. For example, it is possible that if you analyze a bag of soil from your backyard you may find traces of gold! However, it is also likely that to extract gold from that soil will cost more than the present price of that gold. However, in the scenario that gold prices rise significantly you may be able to economically recover this gold. But such increasing availability would also cause downward pressure on the gold prices and thus slowing the price rise or cause them to decline!

Reserves are, therefore, finite at FIXED level of price; FIXED level of input cost, FIXED level of technology, and a fixed level of SOCIETAL demand. Since all these components are continuously changing, the equilibrium between resource and reserve keeps changing. So several economic components affect the “global reserve” of any mineral or any natural resource. Lets discuss them one by one:

  1. Reserve Depletion increases price and therefore ADDS to reserves: This may seem counter intuitive, but as we start depleting reserves we would disturb the demand- supply equilibrium and the prices start incresing. When prices increase, lower grade resource or “difficult to mine” resource suddenly becomes viable thus adding to the global supply. A good example would be the petroleum situation. From 1980s to 2000 oil prices were stable and stayed within $15 -$25/barrel range. Considering that price range, many people project that the world will run out of oil by 2020. Now, in 2020, we use a lot more oil than 1985. As the prices started creeping up the “tough to extract oil” that was uneconomic at $25 suddenly became economic at $35. As the prices kept creeping up, shale gas became viable above $50 and massive capacities started developing. Around those prices the massive tar sands of Canada also became viable fueling a boom in Alberta as oil prices sustained above $90 during 2010-2014. The prices have since corrected but at present we see an oil supply glut rather than a resource depletion.
  2. Technology increases conservation. It ADDS and also REDUCES the reserve pool: Continuous changes in technology continuously disturbs the resource-reserve equilibrium. Technology adds to efficiency and thus ADDS to the reserve. For example, sealed bearings do not need frequent lubrication, advent of LED lights reduced power consumption for large consumers and therefore ADDED to the fuel reserves. For small users however the higher price of LED does not make economic sense and thus significantly increased the availability of less efficient devises at lower prices. Use of technology is not a new phenomenon. About a century back lots of whales were killed and all over the western world, whale fat and oil was used for lamps, soap and lubricants. Discovery of petroleum largely replaced whale oil and (thankfully!) reduced whale slaughter.
    The resource-reserve equilibrium is not only measured in financial costs but also ecological costs. Ecological costs often SUBSIDIZE financial costs. Not having to pay for environmental cleanup and burning of fossil fuels keeps energy prices low. Green energy also has significant ecological costs. The wind turbines and solar panels are hugely subsidized by ecological costs in China. Production of Rare Earth Metals – critical for green energy – have created huge toxic dumps in China. These metals are artificially subsidized by Chinese producers not having to pay for environmental cleanups. So essentially the environmental costs are just being moved elsewhere. When technology sufficiently evolves to make green energy abundant, the fossil fuels – coal and oil – will likely lose their value and regress from reserve to resource! Ecological enthusiasts oft mention quotes like“we must preserve our natural resources for future generation” which is absolutely true. What is also true is that petroleum was not a reserve over century back and will possibly no longer be a reserve when technology evolves to other energy sources. If not used now, it will not have any value in future. Similarly burning wood was the dominant global energy source about 200 year back but now it is no longer so. While it is important for our generation to preserve the ecology, it is also important to use the available reserves to give a good foundation to the next generation so they can build upon it using future reserves. Another interesting story is about iron ore. Till about 30 years back blast furnaces could only use iron ore pieces between 6mm and 40mm (called lumps). As mined blocks were a lot bigger they had to be crushed to become smaller than 40mm. During crushing several pieces became smaller than 6mm (fines) and had to be rejected as waste although they also contained iron. As technology evolved, it became possible to use these fines for the newer design steel plants. Millions of tonnes of waste suddenly became “reserve.” Several large iron ore mines actually started reworking their waste dumps, recover fines, and were selling more than their mine production through 1990s and 2000s.
  3. Replacement ADDS and also reduces RESERVES: Replacement minerals having similar properties, and artificial material having similar properties can sometimes replace a mineral. Such replacements and artificial material have relatively narrow price zones and become viable when the mineral price starts to rise. Sometimes these replacements can create new commercial categories and reduce the demand for the original mineral. One example can be artificial stone tiles, these come in various fancy colours and sizes and have successfully created a new category in building material. These are sold alongside natural granite and marble and cushion price volatility. In South India, hundreds of granite units have shut shop due to various reasons and artificial stones have partially filled the demand. They have ADDED to the reserve base of construction material and offered wider choice to consumers while also REDUCED the reserve base of high end granite while the high end granite units are struggling with permitting and creeping taxes.
  4. SOCIETAL pressures and public opinion: Public opining is a strong force and has been successfully used to alter the resource – reserve equilibrium. Non-financial criteria can affect demand and hence prices. Ecological awareness, certification of sustainable and responsible production affects consumer behaviour. For example, the concept of blood diamonds prompted diamond industry to initiate the process of certificate of origin – the Kimberley Protocol. Under this system EVERY diamond comes with a certificate of origin that ensures the proceeds of the sale is not used to fuel wars and promote weapon purchases by warlords in Africa. Such consumer awareness and use of buying power by end-users REDUCED the reserve pool of diamonds, increased the average prices, financed exploration in safe areas, and caused peace in many conflict areas. Similarly certificate of origin for tin from non-conflict areas fetches almost double the price of uncertified tin and is continuously encouraging responsible mining. This certification REDUCED the reserve base, increased the prices and rewarded the companies doing responsible mining.

To conclude we can say that in theory mineral resources are finite, however, the resource pool is extremely large. A middle path of sustainable, ecologically and socially responsible mining with conservation can hugely add to our well being and prosperity. How to achieve that, needs to be discussed and debated in detail.

I would encourage the students and public to visit https://mineralexplorationacademy.com/ and post their views in the comments section.

If you would like to ask a question to our expert panel please use this link

11 thoughts on “Q: What happens when we exploit all the mineral resources? What happens when deposits around the world start depleting?

  1. You have made a very good analysis on reserves and resources. This question lingers in the minds of students, because we teach them that ‘ mineral deposits deplete’.
    Your eg. of harnessing gold from soil is striking. On a similar analogy, I used to baffle students in the class by saying ‘today’s rocks are tomarrow’s ores,’ when reserves are gone, new technologies are imminent which enabled us to extract metals, though expensive initially, economy will adjust to it!
    So there will never be dearth for most minerals, if we innovate new technologies.
    So, you have covered all the intricacies that surround mineral position for today and the future, which makes students to widen their thinking and think beyond their routine class room learnings.
    Congrats.

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  2. A very nice narrative on the question of Reserve–Resource equilibrium and its concept linked with finance, technology ,demand-supply,environment and public opinion and influence. Most students and even exploration professionals falter in the deep understanding of this vital concept of exploration. My appreciation for this erudite explanation. Exploration needs a wide thinking that is understandable to a mining geologist, administrator, finance expert and also to the policy maker and politician. Such article is an apt reading on the issue.

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  3. I though think the earth resource will not dwindled for next few thousand year if proper technology mining and intelligent consumption pattern is adopted by the global community. 75 percent of natural deposits are untapped especially in marine zone. Feasible technological innovations are required to be developed. There is a huge scope for preparation of synthetic substitute from geochemical processing & recycle of compound such e waste could further prolong the life of metals & ore minerals for global applications. Only the technology matters. One cannot deny the possible exploration attempts of resources and new mineral deposits on lunar surface as well.

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  4. Posting on behalf of Dr. V.N.Vasudev, CEO, MPXG Exploration
    “…
    It is very unlikely that the human race will exploit all the mineral resources at least within another 100 years at the current rate of mining of both major and minor minerals. There are enough resources of Iron ore, limestone, bauxite and aluminous laterite, manganese, coal, copper, lead, zinc, gold, coal, titanium, fertilizer minerals etc and even REEs. Much more remains to be discovered on land.

    Due to ever increasing market price, mining of lower grades are increasingly getting into Mineral Resource Inventories of different countries. Sea Bed has vast resources of a variety of minerals viz, manganese, copper, lead, zinc, cobalt, bismuth,lithium, silver, gold. Chromite and PGEs are found where ultramafic magmas have crystallized subsea floor. Shores and Continental shelf are known to hold vast resources of phosphorous, manganese, heavy mineral sands with or without REE bearing Monazite, etc. Coal mining will any way stop by 2050 in accordance with the PARIS agreement on Environment.

    I wish to cite the example of the so called exhausted resources of Sand which is in fact treated as a renewable resources. Most States in the country have banned or restricted river sand mining due to it’s implications to ground water. “Manufactured sand or M-sand” has replaced natural sand. M-sand is produced by crushing inexhaustible granites. Alternatives or replacements to “exhausted” minerals and metals are

    Urban mining or recycling of ferrous and non-ferrous scrap from domestic and industrial sources has been underway. Mining of metal rich Asteroids hovering around the Earth is no longer in the domain of science fiction.

    Natural disasters are also likely to reduce human population thereby reducing the dependence on minerals. Finally, the human race is more likely to vanish much before the exhaustion of minerals on Earth due to nuclear warfare triggered by senseless attitude of some political leaders who are driven by greed to dominate over other nations. Please post this as my reply to the question raised by Varun Shastri of Sagar University and T. Gokul of Annamalai University.
    Regards
    Dr. V.N.Vasudev
    …”

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  5. On behalf of Sri A.Sundaramoorthy, former DG, GSI
    “…Chances of mineral resources getting exhausted will never happen in the globe. May be resources reduced and new discoveries will happen. This is true since formation of earth. Also alternate use of existing resources of mineral will always happen with development of new technology…”

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  6. On behalf of Dr.V.Ganeshan, Former Director, GSI
    “…One has to abide by the conservation of minerals’ policy.. Utilize and reprocess the already used / or rejected materials. Day by day depletion of any mineral wealth results in rarity, which in turn makes it economically viable now which was earlier rejected and dumped. In addition to that you may get many byproducts from the rejects due to upcoming latest innovative techniques in mineral beneficiation processes. So do re-evaluation of earlier projects and work out the feasibility and also implement the latest technology in the present ongoing projects for conservation of minerals which may help in reducing the imports of different metals/ ores by which Indian economy may improve…”

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  7. Hope it would be nice Platform to discus new idea and strategy about mineral resources and its exploitation.
    Thank you Dr Amit.

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  8. Sir,
    I want to draw your kind attention to the following for kind clarification and understanding only…
    In the paragraph,
    3.Replacement ADDS and also reduces RESERVES:
    “hundreds of granite units have shut shop due to various reasons and artificial stones have partially filled the demand. They have ADDED to the reserve base of construction material and offered wider choice to consumers while also REDUCED the reserve base of high end granite while the high end granite units are struggling with permitting and creeping taxes.”
    Introduction of artificial stone “have ADDED to the reserve base of construction material and offered wider choice to consumers”…ok
    But how it is ,”also REDUCED the reserve base of high end granite”. I could not follow this reduction in the reserve of high end granite?//////
    That is , it may stop the flow of reducing the reserve of “ High end Granite”. It may not increase the depletion of reserve of ‘high end granite”…general quarrying and selling may deplete the granite resource in turn reserve……..thank you..

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    1. Thank you Sir for making a pertinent point fo clarification. Artificial stones offer a large and varied choice to buyers within a narrow price band. This reduces demand for higher priced natural stones and puts downward pressure on their prices. With falling prices, several expensive stones are no longer workable and these RESERVES thus regress to uneconomic RESOURCE category.
      This also raises another interesting specter. If RESERVES are not utilized in time they lose their utility and thus might become waste. So the concept of conserving for next generation is only partially relevant. If we don’t use what is categorized as RESERVES now, a significant part of these may lose its value and we would be transferring “waste” to the next generation. Diamonds are FOREVER !! but other things might not be…

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  9. Good question. If all the minerals get exhausted then the entire homosapien race will be in trouble. However, the current level of knowlesge of ore systems suggests that new deposits keep on forming (e.g. spreading mid-oceanic ridges, alluvial deposits, subsurface hydrothermal systems etc.).

    With the depletion of resources/closing of mines, there would be more pressure to find/make new deposits/ discoveries. If we look at availability of some commodity at a particular time in past, probably more resources are available at the current time (due to additional delineation of resources = increased Life-of-Mine) Moreover, substitutes would be found for the depleting mineral resources to keep the industry live. Hence, more mineral exploration guided by new technologies would be required to find new resources which are possibly located further deep

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  10. To my opinion the question of depletion of a mine is depending primary to the equilibrium between the exploitation costs and the market prices. To the exploitation costs we should add the rehabilitations costs as it should be part of the commitment of the permit owner by the law.
    The regulator has to receive as part of the royalty taxes an amount which is designated solely for the rehabilitation of the mine.
    This amount should be added to the business model of any mine.
    The mined area should return to society in a way to end any risks for reusing this land.
    The exact rehabilitation plan can be done only at the shut down of the mine and should be carried out as soon as possible after that.

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