09-13 Tasmanian farmers

[Image above] Tasmanian farmers Sam Archer, left, and Nick Eyles show on a map the areas of their land that are impacted by exploratory licenses. Credit: ABC Australia

Clean energy investment has reached a tipping point, with dozens of countries around the world crossing the threshold for mass adoption of green energy technologies, according to an analysis by Bloomberg.

But as adoption of these technologies soar, there are growing concerns about securing the necessary raw materials to support this burgeoning demand. In response, mining companies are expanding their search for new minerals deposits, and some notable discoveries were announced in recent years, such as here, here, and here.

Yet the discovery of these deposits is only the first step—companies must then apply for licenses to begin extraction operations at the site. And it is at this phase that the possible effects mining will have on the surrounding environment and communities come sharply into focus.

Mining is an inherently invasive process that will always cause some level of damage to the surrounding area. The effects of this damage can continue years after a mine has shut down, including the addition to greenhouse gases, death of flora and fauna, and erosion of land and habitat.

Emerging technologies, such as carbon capture and improved wastewater treatment, can make mining processes more sustainable. But communities and environmental groups must advocate for the inclusion of these technologies during the licensing process to help ensure the safeguarding procedures are implemented.

There is much advocacy taking place for environmental controls on deep-sea mining, which is at risk of taking place without regulations in place. The risk is so great that in August 2023, a group of Pacific island nations put in place a moratorium on deep-sea mining within its member countries’ territorial waters.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the discovery of a gigantic rare earths deposit in Sweden brought attention to how the area’s existing mine already impacts the indigenous Sámi reindeer herders.

In today’s CTT, we turn our attention to Australia, where landowners in the island state of Tasmania are warily watching the expansion of land covered under exploration licenses.

Tasmania: ‘One of the most mineralized places on the planet’

The island state of Tasmania lies about 150 miles (240 km) to the south of the Australian mainland, separated from it by the Bass Strait. Despite its small size, Tasmania has remarkable geological diversity and an abundance of mineral deposits. The video below describes the geological history of Tasmania.

Credit: ABC Science, YouTube

The discovery of the rich Mount Bischoff tin deposit in 1871 put Tasmania on the map for explorers, prospectors, and track cutters. Discoveries of other major deposits soon followed, and the state quickly became known as a significant minerals producer.

Currently, the combined mining and minerals processing sectors represent more than 60% of Tasmania’s mercantile export earnings. A recent state report notes that as of November 2022, there are 511 mining leases, 158 exploration licenses, and 19 retention licenses active in Tasmania.

Minerals exploration in Tasmania: License procedures considered ‘outdated’ by landowners

With the increased demand for minerals from the energy sector, interest in exploration licenses has skyrocketed in Tasmania. In the past two and a half years, the area of Tasmanian land under exploration licenses excluding petroleum increased from 5,176 square kilometers (January 2021) to 9,842 square kilometers (June 2023).

Exploration licenses are granted in Tasmania according to the state’s “Mineral Exploration Code of Practice.” This code, which was first issued more than three decades ago, contains several provisions that are coming under increased scrutiny from landowners in the wake of increased license demand.

For example, private land is available for exploration in Tasmania. Landowners can object to a license being granted, but ownership itself is not a reason for an application to be refused.

Landowners must first know if their land is under consideration before they can object to it. But the code, rather than requiring the director of mines to contact affected landowners directly when recommending license approval, only requires the director to advertise that intention in the local print newspaper—an announcement that is easily missed.

“Sam Archer said some of the land he and his brother farm had been covered with an exploration license without their knowledge because they did not see it advertised in the paper,” a recent ABC Australia article reports. Meanwhile, their neighbor Nick Eyles said “if his father had not noticed the Selbourne application advertised in the Saturday Examiner newspaper, he would not have known about it.”

The fact that they were caught unawares about the exploration licenses is not Archer and Eyles’ main concern. As Eyles explains in the ABC Australia article, “The exploration is probably not going to be deemed too invasive to us, but it’s the issue that they may in fact find something of importance and wish to mine it, and the impacts it’s going to have on our environment, our land usage, our ability to farm, and also [the] irrigation scheme within the area.”

In addition to the outdated notification procedure, the Tasmanian Greens political party expressed concern that potential cumulative effects of multiple exploration sites were not being considered when exploration licenses were being assessed.

“When we’ve got the whole of the northeast, the majority of the Tarkine, and many places in the north now covered in exploration licenses, this is a huge potential impact on areas that have been independently verified as high biodiversity,” says Greens leader Rosalie Woodruff in the ABC Australia article.

Despite these concerns about the current code, Australian resources minister Felix Ellis told ABC Australia that the government has no intention of reviewing the laws governing mining and exploration at this time.