Antofagasta, the Chilean owner of the proposed Twin Metals copper mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, must take sly pleasure at the tedious backbiting and infighting here in Ely, Minn. It certainly diverts local attention from the tsunami that’s hitting the mining workforce around the world.
“Taking the miner out of mining” is a major theme these days among mining industry planners, according to the article “The Robots Are Coming” in the current issue of Mining Magazine, a leading industry journal since 1909.
Industry news is abuzz with breakthroughs in automation and robotics. This is not pie-in-the-sky scheming: Four of Australia’s open-pit iron mines, along with an underground mine, are already automated. Robotic excavators dig the ore, driverless trucks move it out of the mine, driverless locomotives take it to processing. Mining giant Rio Tinto, sensing the shock waves this might send through its global workforce, is quick to note that some of the miners have been retrained to monitor this equipment — at a robotics control facility in an urban center 750 miles from the mines. One operator can monitor an entire fleet of trucks that run 24/7 with no need for lunch or bathroom breaks and no risk of on-the-job injuries.
A key global planning study titled “Mining a Mirage?” by the Canada- and Switzerland-based Intergovernmental Forum on Mining concludes that automation is transforming the industry far faster than mining companies anticipated. And why wouldn’t it, since automated mining is slated to reduce operating costs by 50 percent and increase productivity by 30 percent? These efficiencies result largely from workforce reductions, which could be as large as 75 percent, according to references cited in the study.
When? The study notes that these technologies “are likely to reach their peak rates of deployment in the next 10 to 15 years.” That’s years before Twin Metals, even under its rosiest projections, anticipates having a shovel in the ground. By then, how many of the promised 850 mine-operator jobs will have been eliminated by automation?
In that same 10- to 15-year time frame, driverless trucks are expected to eliminate the nation’s most common job: our 3.5 million truckers. The driverless semi named “Otto” that transported 50,000 cans of beer across Colorado this summer might have been an Uber stunt — but it worked.
Minnesota’s Eighth District U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, a Democrat who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is well aware that the equipment-operator workforce is facing its demise within the next decade or two. But yet he panders for the vote of mining proponents while giving no hint that the jobs they hope for their children are rapidly destined for obsolescence — unless their kids want to monitor computers at a robotics control facility in an urban center hundreds of miles from Ely.
The “Mirage” planning study also concludes that, in socioeconomic terms, the traditional “social license” by which communities allow corporations to extract local resources in return for local jobs needs to be renegotiated — because the next generation of mines will offer few locals jobs. Here’s another opportunity for Nolan, or whoever replaces him, to exhibit some political leadership.
These sweeping automation trends mean that, with or without Twin Metals, mining employment will not be a significant factor in Ely’s workforce future. Every community in the country will need to reckon with this “mother of all” industrial revolutions. Fortunately, Ely is ahead of the curve with our downtown revitalization and burgeoning small-business movement.
References to our “amenities-based economy” may raise some eyebrows, but there’s no denying the fact that if we take care of our woods and water, Ely will always remain an appealing place to live, work and recreate. But its sustainability cannot rely upon the fading mirage of heavy-industry jobs.
Paul and Susan Schurke are owners of Wintergreen Northern Wear and Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge in Ely.