Colorado School of Mines warns of ‘grey tsunami’ of mining industry retirements

Amanda Stutt | August 29, 2023 | 11:42 am Battery Metals Careers Education Suppliers & Equipment USA Copper 

Aerial view of part of the Resolution Copper project. Credit: Wikipedia

While mining is crucial to any nation’s national security and to the production of energy infrastructure and electric vehicles, actual production of the critical minerals needed globally is not keeping pace. 

Its estimated the world will need to produce over the next 20-25 years the amount of copper that has been produced throughout all human history, Walter Copan, VP, Research and Technology Transfer at Colorado School of Mines, testified in June before the House Committee on Natural Resources

The impending deficit of the bellwether metal has been common knowledge in the industry for years, but it was only this month that the United States Department of Energy actually added copper to its critical minerals list

“As the nation and our world look to our shared energy for electric power, energy storage and the environment, we are realizing the need for mining and its products at an unprecedented scale,” Copan said, adding that while the world will need to mine vast amounts of copper, lithium, graphite and cobalt, “America’s shortfall is staggering.”

‘Grey tsunami’

Meanwhile, the mining industry is facing a critical skills gap, compounded with the so-called ‘grey tsunami’ impending with regard to the amount of retirements anticipated.

Some of the industry’s most prominent figures have voiced concerns about the future of the talent pipeline, even calling on educational institutions to rally to increase enrollment numbers at the undergraduate level. Copan noted academia has seen a decline in programs that relate to mining, engineering, and extractive metallurgy.

“This industry has lost its lustre, with regard to being attractive to the next generation of leaders at all levels in the sector and the lack of interest in the geosciences more broadly,” Copan said in an interview with MINING.com. “It is doubly concerning because as we look at the reliance of this world on the materials that are sourced from the Earth’s crust, the entire mining sector is key to the energy transition.”

“Mining, mineral processing and then the downstream production of the materials that we rely upon for all aspects of the energy sector [are] at risk because of these shortages, and I find the statistic staggering that we are anticipating a retirement of more than half of the US mining workforce over the next six years, that’s 221,000 workers that are expected to retire by 2029,” Copan said. 

The pipeline of people servicing the sector from the leadership level to engineering and extractive metallurgy are being replaced only at a trickle in the United States, Canada, Australia and in Europe.

The House Committee on Natural Resources is considering the Mining Schools Act of 2023, which would establish a grant program for recruitment and research projects.

During a conference this summer in Halifax, Nova Scotia for US and Canadian universities, a meeting was held with academics who are interested in partnering with the Colorado School of Mines to revitalise interests at the undergraduate level and provide incentives.

Colorado School of Mines recently entered a partnership with the University of Saskatchewan and is holding meetings with the provincial government about potentially establishing a Saskatchewan School of Mines.

Mixed messaging 

Many opportunities are available on public and federal lands, but once a new project starts to gain traction, local opposition can potentially stall it for years.  

The Biden administration has said it aims to support mining projects that avoid “historical injustices”, ensure resources benefit the community, and create good-paying, union jobs in sustainable production.

“We can’t build a future that’s made in America if we ourselves are dependent on China for the materials that power the products of today and tomorrow,” Biden said at a White House event last year.

But even as the president stresses the need to boost domestic production of critical minerals, his administration has blocked several proposed US mines, including the Pebble project in Alaska, Rio Tinto’s Resolution copper project in Arizona and Antofagasta’s Twin Metals project in Minnesota. It has also taken steps to slow down development of ioneer’s lithium mine in Nevada.

The industry has seen its reputation blackened by past injustices and environmental infractions, but Copan pointed to companies that are working towards improved ESG metrics and reaching decarbonization goals. 

The US Department of Energy introduced the concept of Justice 40, which stipulates that even if a corporation takes major investment risks, it must ensure that 40% of the value that’s created actually remains within the communities through employment and new types of opportunities for economic activity.

“We do face many contradictions and we see this in public opinion and public discourse,” Copan said. “We see it in the political landscape and we also see it that certain parts of government are contradicting the actions and the words being taken by the administration. 

“The main message is it’s unfortunate and entirely inconsistent and the government must understand the ramifications of its actions if it wishes to secure the future energy transition to which they aspire,” Copan said.

New generation of leaders 

The mining industry needs a new generation of leaders, Copan stressed.

 “The new generation will be part of reimagining what the sector will be. We need the mining sector to be the exemplar industry, the one that ultimately carries the torch for the future of the earth that is truthful and transparent in its communications that’s rigorous in its processes and fully engaged with stakeholder communities.

“I think we will have a chance to rebuild the workforce. I’m also excited about a new era of innovation for the mining sector as we look at the role [of] industrial automation, robotics and artificial intelligence,” Copan said. “We have an amazing opportunity for us to reduce collateral environmental damage from the sector through the application of advanced technologies, and I think that’s going to be an important part of [what] the investment community is looking at.”

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