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Chile's mining industry underwent perhaps one of the most transformative steps in its recent history this year when it strongly embraced the concept of sustainability for its operations, which could prove crucial for the future of the sector.
From the adaptation of new technologies by state copper giant Codelco to the signing of a new framework agreement with government authorities over renewable energy sources to a new desalination drive across the north, the mining industry took the lead in trying to make a change to how it operates.
BNamericas takes a look at some of the steps taken by the industry in adapting to the new realities of the 21st century.
ENERGY: ADAPTATION IN LIGHT OF NEED
One of the most important steps taken by the industry was the move towards renewable energies. This, of course, not only has to do with corporate social responsibility, considering the sector accounts for over a third of energy consumption in the country, but also due to how difficult – and expensive – energy has become.
In fact, the issue of energy is one of the key factors that have been identified as hurting competitiveness compared to peers in the region, particularly Peru.
And the industry took different routes this year to tackle this issue. In July the mining council – which groups together the country's largest mining companies – and Codelco signed separate agreements with the government to boost the industry's energy efficiency.
Under the agreements, miners must follow internationally recognized best practices for energy use and submit to independent energy audits to identify ways to streamline consumption.
The industry has also been proactive in bringing non-conventional renewable energy (NCRE) sources for its operations. For instance it has funded most of the country's geothermal exploration. But it has also brought NCRE projects online, or is about to in the coming years.
Some of these projects include the 300MW, US$620mn Pampa Camarones solar PV plant to power the Pampa Camarones mine; the 115MW, US$278mn El Arrayán wind farm to power Antofagasta Minerals' Los Pelambres mine; the 94MW, US$250mn Amanecer Solar PV plant to power iron ore miner CAP's operations; and the 25MW, US$111mn Pozo Almonte PV plant for Collahuasi.
WATER: DESALINATION IS KEY
Considering that the vast majority of Chile's operations are located in the Atacama desert, the driest in the world, the industry has been keen to find new water sources. And desalination seems to be the way of the future.
The industry is expected to invest some US$10bn in 16 potential new plants through 2025, nine of them located in Antofagasta region, home of world class operations such as Chuquicamata, Escondida, Centinela and Sierra Gorda.
Although blamed by many as one of the main drivers of the overconsumption of water, the truth is that mining only accounts for 5% of the fresh water consumed in the country. If these desal projects are carried out, it could free up those resources for residential consumption and farming.
CODELCO: AT THE VANGUARD OF NEW TECHNOLOGY
Codelco took two important steps to introduce new technology for its operations this year. In September, its biotech subsidiary, BioSigma, a JV with JX Nippon Mining & Metals, announced the successful completion of an industrial-scale test of its bioleaching technology at the company's Radomiro Tomic division.
BioSigma was able to recover between 30% and 50% more copper, three times faster and about 10% cheaper than other bioleaching technology.
Following the successful trial run, using BioSigma's technology will mean that in 2015 over 5Mt of what was considered dump material will be treated at Radomiro Tomic.
The project will be gravity-fed from the flow of the tailings dam, with estimated maximum capacity of 3MW.
All things considered, 2014 might prove to be the year in which the mining industry took a leap forward in its continuing adaptation to new technological and social needs.