The inhospitable southbound Gobi Desert successful Mongolia is champion known for its sweeping steppes, double-humped Bactrian camels and nomadic herders.
From its vast, arid, fragile and seemingly endless plains, Genghis Khan’s armies erstwhile ruled an empire. But heavy beneath his past homeland, much than 1 kilometre underground, an arsenic immense undertaking is unfolding.
Twenty-thousand workers are labouring 24 hours a day, 365 days a twelvemonth to unlock the astir invaluable portion of the Oyu Tolgoi mine, 1 of the world’s astir distant mining operations tally by Anglo-Australian resources elephantine Rio Tinto.
At involvement is proviso of a cardinal mineral for the planetary modulation to a low-carbon economy: copper.
The invaluable Oyu Tolgoi excavation is simply a hive of activity. Pit trucks rumble time and night, crushers grind rocks done the acheronian hours, immense metallic concentrator vats bubble relentlessly refining copper ore. Workers instrumentality rotating shifts bagging the last copper ore merchandise arsenic stars twinkle successful the godforsaken sky. Temperatures plunge 40 degrees beneath zero successful wintertime and the aforesaid supra successful summer.
Hundreds of workers connected 14-day rotations are housed connected site, either successful accepted gers (yurts) oregon modern triple-storey demountable units. They dine successful a communal room hallway that churns retired 21,000 meals a day.
About 97 per cent of the mine’s workforce are Mongolian, astir one-fifth are female, and a 3rd are from section communities – awesome statistic successful a male-dominated industry known for flying successful and flying retired skilled workers.
Copper is simply a cardinal basal metallic for the planetary modulation to a low-carbon economy, captious for electrification and cleanable vigor infrastructure. Rio has been extracting golden and copper from Oyu’s open-cut operations since 2012, but is present proceeding with the much technically challenging task of extracting the mineral from heavy beneath the aboveground – unlocking the astir invaluable portion of the mine. Using “block-carving” techniques, it collects the falling mineral ore from shafts 1.3 kilometres underground and past transports it up a conveyor to the aboveground for processing.
The miner positions itself arsenic a responsible, transparent operator. For example, Oyu’s materials sourcing programme buys idiosyncratic protective instrumentality made by section co-operatives. Nevertheless, the underground excavation was beset by a bid of agelong delays and outgo blowouts aft operation began successful 2019, compounded by a long-running quality with the Mongolian authorities that lone ended past twelvemonth erstwhile Rio waived a $US2.4 cardinal ($3.6 billion) indebtedness owed by the government.
“It’s not been a creaseless ride. Let’s beryllium honorable astir that. We person had our challenges, we person had our setbacks,” Rio Tinto main enforcement Jakob Stausholm says.
And tensions stay – chiefly a combat implicit the company’s taxation liability. Rio has a 66 per cent involvement successful Oyu, the authorities has 34 per cent. “It takes 2 to tango. There was nary mode we could lick everything successful 1 go,” Stausholm says.
Bulgantuya Khurelbaatar, Mongolia’s borderline ports curate and a erstwhile worker of the mine, isn’t giving crushed though. Locals won’t beryllium blessed if the authorities treats large Western investors otherwise to them, she says.
“We volition try, of course, to beryllium amicable. But astatine the aforesaid time, we besides person to guarantee that due to the fact that this is the archetypal ample project, and tons of different large mining projects are looking astatine however we’re going to beryllium resolving this issue; it’s going to astir apt acceptable a precedent.
“This was the archetypal large task successful a state that is nomadic and precise babelike connected agriculture,” she says. “We person a overmuch much shamanistic benignant of civilization wherever we wage homage to the Mother Earth. It’s rather hard to endorse mining.”
But it’s Mongolia’s authoritarian and assertive neighbours, China and Russia, that truly clasp the keys to the occurrence of Rio’s $7 cardinal stake connected the mine’s caller underground operation. Along with its big country, the institution is squeezed betwixt 2 unstable geopolitical responsibility lines.
Rio was speedy to stop purchasing Russian goods and services erstwhile the West imposed terrible economical sanctions aft Moscow marched connected Kiev, triggering the ongoing deadly Ukrainian struggle that has upended Europe and sparked a planetary vigor crunch.
“We went retired arsenic the archetypal mining institution saying we would chopped our commercialized ties to Russia, and we’ve done so, and it wasn’t easy,” says Stausholm. “It’s truly not our occupation to archer countries what you do.”
But the mine’s immense Komatsu haulage trucks – the size of a ample two-storey location – which transportation 290 tonnes of ore successful each load arsenic they ascent retired of the 650-metre heavy open-cut pit, are thirsty consumers of diesel. And the hundreds of 4WD vehicles, dense machinery, semi-trailers and buses utilized to determination radical and goods astir the excavation and open-cut pit – which volition yet agelong astir 3 kilometres successful magnitude – besides suck up immense quantities of fuel.
The mine’s immense vigor needs – equivalent to astir a 4th of Mongolia’s accumulation capableness – are babelike connected energy from China and substance from Russia.
Khurelbaatar says the mining sector, successful which Rio is by acold the largest player, accounts for fractional of the nation’s full petroleum use.
Diesel and substance is each imported from Russia. There is nary different option. “What are the choices?” Khurelbaatar says. Recognising its vulnerability and deficiency of vigor security, Mongolia is constructing its archetypal refinery, she adds.
Rio’s copper boss, Bold Baatar, is much blunt. “It’s a enactment successful progress. Russia does not proviso america directly. We bargain our goods from Mongolian suppliers, and look for alternate suppliers from galore parts of the world. This is thing that we are moving on,” helium says.
It’s a akin communicative with the mine’s narration to China.
The copper ore yielded up by the Gobi Desert is processed successful a immense crushing, concentrator and packaging complex. Oyu’s concentrator is truthful large, it claims the rubric of the biggest concern portion ever built successful Mongolia. When the one-tonne bags of ore look from the facility’s bagging plant, they are conscionable 100 kilometres by roadworthy to the nearest borderline constituent with China.
And that’s wherever astir each of it is shipped.
Of the 25 cardinal tonnes of copper consumed globally, China gobbles up astir 13.6 cardinal tonnes. North America processes astir 2.4 cardinal and Europe 3.7 million. Presently, Oyu produces 130,000 tonnes of copper ore a year, a fig that is expected to leap to 500,000 erstwhile the mine’s caller underground shafts deed afloat capableness from 2028 to 2036. When it reaches that pitch, it volition proviso 2 per cent of satellite request and beryllium the globe’s fourth-largest copper mine.
“[We live] successful the satellite wherever everything that we bash – thrust a Tesla oregon usage an iPhone – needs copper and astir of that, similar it oregon not, is manufactured successful China,” says Baatar.
It’s a dependence that neither helium nor Stausholm shy distant from.
“There’s a batch of commercialized with China. We bargain powerfulness [from them], we merchantability [them] copper concentrate,” Stausholm said. “We person a precise large concern into China. I’m not peculiarly disquieted from our standpoint arsenic you’re seeing China opening up close now. Mongolia is geographically precise adjacent to China, and that’s wherever we are selling the copper concentrate,” helium said.
Rio’s dependence connected Chinese vigor whitethorn beryllium offset successful the aboriginal by an statement to root powerfulness from the Mongolian grid. Stausholm said Rio was besides intent connected expanding renewable vigor procreation for the mine.
Oyu’s enlargement is 1 of the mining giant’s astir important maturation projects – a cardinal plank successful its ambition to diversify distant from robust ore and propulsion deeper into minerals that volition progressively beryllium needed successful a low-carbon economy.
“There’s a batch of speech astir artillery materials, but if you truly bash your numbers, you volition spot the large numbers are successful copper and aluminium. From an biology constituent of view, you’ll spot these super-scale copper mines are the astir businesslike [way to extract that], alternatively than a batch of smaller, older mines,” Stausholm says.
The newsman travelled to Mongolia arsenic a impermanent of Rio Tinto.
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