Words by Caoilin Chestnutt
Resources Investment Commissioner, Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Energy
Mineral exploration expenditure in Queensland saw a 26% increase last financial year to a total value of $280 million, including a 41% increase in copper exploration and 148% increase in exploration across gold, lead and zinc. The numbers are certainly promising to see.
One of the biggest trends we’ve noticed over the past 12 to 18 months is a return to grassroots exploration and build over buy from some of the major mining companies, who haven’t been particularly active in greenfield exploration for a number of years. Both Anglo American and the Canadian company Teck have taken up significant acreage in the Mt Isa region, pegging huge amounts of ground in search of predominantly copper targets. Meanwhile, Rio Tinto never really stopped exploring but rather maintained a steady and good rate of exploration.
This trend is driven off the back of commodity pricing, healthier balance sheets and demand for critical minerals, as well as a need to replenish project pipelines. We haven’t made a tier one discovery in 20 years in Queensland, and as those old reliable projects have come to completion the attention has turned towards securing future resource bases.
When times are tight, or during a downturn, typically it’s the exploration funds that get cut first – because of the costs involved, exploration is often seen as a liability. But now with a return to profitability there’s more cash available to fund it, whereas previously the majors tended to focus on near term mining areas, de-risking the mine schedule and letting the junior companies do the exploration.
I think it’s fair to say now those junior companies are still struggling to find funding for their next phase of exploration. They hold the ground, but it tends to be smaller scale projects.
A move away from traditional prospecting
Another general trend that’s emerged is a big move to data mining – so really identifying the areas for drilling for the next phase of exploration, but taking a much higher level view of those before actually getting on the ground to begin.
Artificial learning has opened this ability to datamine vast amounts of geological data to identify the most prospective areas for exploration – using artificial intelligence and learnings to interrogate that data and come up with the drilling targets, with some of that data mining being done overseas. So there’s definitely an evolution in the style of the exploration approach, top-driven by a swing in technology improvements.
Going forwards, these constantly evolving technologies will only serve to enhance exploration and discovery. Traditionally we’ve been spoilt by shallow, easy to find deposits. But now there’s a need to be smarter to be successful in new discoveries, go deeper and move to undercover exploration and find that which we haven’t been able to access before.
I think traditionally there’s been a belief that there is little surface expression of structures deeper than 500m, but I think now we’re testing the limits of that. Now’s the time to test that hypothesis and study the geology, interpret reactivation of overlying Phanerozoic rocks or neotonic activity that may be an indicator of the systems beneath, and study the bacterial systems and gas emission signatures and correlate that to the known mineral occurrences.
Geologically, we’re really pushing the envelope and moving away from old style prospecting.
Ideally, we can come to understand the mineral system architecture and elements that led to the development of Mount Isa style deposits and look for potential replication of that to lead us to new discoveries.
Incentives to exploration from government
The government is definitely trying to incentivise exploration too.
They have developed the Northwest Minerals Province strategic blueprint to help industry be successful in finding the next major deposits and have committed a four-year $27 million discovery program of geoscience works, with a very strong focus on minerals and petroleum in the northwest of the state.
The program is taking a strong collaborative approach, working with industry to identify geoscience and exploration priorities, and bringing to bear the best capability from around Australia to help address those priorities.
We also have continued our program of funding support to exploration via the Collaborative Exploration Initiative, which has been expanded to support a broader range of exploration techniques in an effort to ensure we give industry the best chance of discovery success.
There have been announcements acknowledging the role of grants in making new discoveries too. A number of ASX announcements have acknowledged this support in making new discoveries – for example, Aeon Metals with their Walford Creek deposit, which is now Australia’s largest cobalt resources.
The Fraser Institute ranks Queensland as number one in Australia and second in the world for mineral prospectivity. I am optimistic that the Northwest Minerals Province, like other parts of Queensland, offers some of the most prospective exploration ground in the world.
One thing is for sure: I’m excited to see what the next few years bring in mineral exploration in Queensland.