Mining is a significant and important part of Australia’s economy. The Australian mining industry origins stem back to the early days of Australia’s settlement when first settlers identified sources of coal in 1797 near Newcastle New South Wales (Nobby’s Head). Coal was first used as a source of heating for the emerging economy and the rich Hunter Valley seams (often protruding from the ground) were exploited by convict labour for the ‘benefit of the colony.’
In Tasmania, an outcrop of coal was first discovered at Plunkett Point in Tasmania by surveyors in 1833. The Government made immediate plans to exploit the resource of the area with penal labour.
It has been recorded that Joseph Lacey, a convict with practical mining knowledge, was sent with a small party of convict labourers to commence the ‘mining work’. The first shipment of coal left the mine on 5 June 1834 aboard the Kangaroo bound for Hobart. The Plunkett Point mine was the first operational mine in Tasmania. Prior to its establishment most of the colony’s coal requirements had been imported from New South Wales, at a considerable expense to the settlement.
In Queensland, the earliest record of production of coal in the State was in 1860 when 12,327 tons were reported as being won from the Ipswich field but it is widely recognised that coal was being exploited from outcrops in the river bank near Redbank much earlier than this.
Gold also was discovered as Australia developed and in the first officially recognised gold find in Australia was on 15 February 1823, by assistant surveyor James McBrien, at Fish River, between Rydal and Bathurst, New South Wales. McBrien noted the date in his field survey book along with, “At E. (End of the survey line) 1 chain 50 links to river and marked a gum tree. At this place, I found numerous particles of gold convenient to river.”
The gold rushes of the 1850s contributed to one of the fastest growth periods for the Australian mining industry. Gold mining soon became one of the country’s primary industries and most important sectors to the growth of Australia.
Mining is now a significant contributor to Australia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that GDP from Australian mining increased to 36287 AUD Million in the fourth quarter of 2018 from 35864 AUD Million in the third quarter of 2018.
Mining now accounts for approximately 8% of the GDP of Australia but the sector as a whole contributes around 15% to the overall economy. Interestingly though, it has been reported that the Australian mining sector is potentially 80% Foreign Owned.
Australian mining is a global top five producer of gold, iron ore, lead, zinc and nickel and also has the world’s largest uranium and fourth largest black coal resources, respectively. As the fourth largest mining country in the world (after China, the United States and Russia), Australia also has an ongoing demand for high-tech equipment. Global companies like Caterpillar, Liebherr and Komatsu have benefited largely from Australian mining growth in recent years however the country has a range of innovative mining equipment manufacturers that are known worldwide for their quality, safety and efficiency in mining operations.
How many mines are there in Australia?
Geoscience Australia reported in 2017 that there are at least 391 operating mine sites in Australia spread across a wide variety of resources. Gold makes up 128 of the total while coal mines total 91. There has been extensive growth in iron ore over the past several years with mines totalling more than 40.
By volume, Australia’s two most important mineral commodities are iron ore of which 97% is mined in Western Australia – and coal, which is largely mined on the east coast, in the states of Queensland and New South Wales.
What types of mineral resources exist in Australia?
Australian mining resources include:
- Iron ore – Australia is the world’s largest supplier;
- Nickel – Australia was the world’s fourth largest producer in 2015, producing 9% of world output.
- Aluminium – Australia was the world’s largest producer of bauxite in 2015 (29% of world production), and the second largest producer of alumina after China.
- Copper – Australia was the world’s 5th largest producer in 2015
- Gold – Australia is the second largest producer after China, producing 287.3 metric tonnes in 2016, 9.2% of the world’s output.
- Silver – In 2015 Australia was the fourth largest producer, producing 1,700 metric tonnes, 6% of the world’s output.
- Uranium – Australia is responsible for 11% of the world’s production and was the world’s third largest producer in 2010 after Kazakhstan and Canada.
- Diamond – Australia has the third largest commercially viable deposits after Russia and Botswana. Australia also boasts the richest diamantiferous pipe with production reaching peak levels of 42 metric tons per year in the 1990s.
- Opal – Australia is the world’s largest producer of opal, being responsible for 95% of production.
- Zinc – Australia was second only to China in zinc production in 2015, producing 1.58 million tonnes, 12% of world production.
- Coal – Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal and fourth largest producer of coal behind China, USA and India.
- Oil shale – Australia has reportedly the sixth largest defined oil shale resources.
- Petroleum – Australia is the twenty-ninth largest producer of petroleum.
- Natural gas – Australia is the world’s third largest producer of LNG and forecast to be the world leader by 2020.
- Rare earth elements – In 2015 Australia was the second largest producer after China, with approximately 8% of the world’s output. This is expected to grow rapidly over the next few years with an intensive exploration program underway.
Types of mining in Australia
There are many different types of mining methods applied to Australian mining operations. Mining methods are often dependent on resources types with coal and iron ore the two most mined commodities we have included information on the Australian mining methods for those commodities.
Coal mining methods
In contrast to most global production, the majority of black coal mined in Australia is produced from open-cut (open cast) mines. This ratio of 3:1 open-cut/surface to underground mines also applies to the broader (i.e. non-coal) local mining sector.
Mining techniques have dramatically transformed over the development of the mining industry in Australia, with a significant number of technological advances aimed at improving efficiency and the safety and health, while seeking to minimise the environmental impact of Australian mining operations. The two main methods of mining coal in Australia are:
Open-cut coal mining
Open-cut (often called open-cast outside Australia) mining usually occurs where the coal deposit is close to to the surface. The selection of the method used if often dependent on the economy of scale for removing the overburden material from the coal seam. The mining method in Australia typically involves blasting and removing surface layers of soil and rock to reach the coal seam. When the coal seam becomes exposed, it is drilled, fractured and the coal excavated for processing. Processing can be dependent on the cleanliness and quality of the coal mined.
Open-cut coal mining can be more cost-effective and safer than underground coal mining methods. Typical recoveries of 90% of the coal seam are achieved through open cut coal mining methods. However the environmental rehabilitation of sites is costly and must be achieved effectively according to regulatory requirements.
Open-cut mining is also used for some iron ore, gold and copper production in Australian mines. One of Australia’s largest open-cut coal mines, BHP Billiton’s Mt Arthur Coal mine, is located in the Hunter Valley.
Underground mining involves creating tunnels from the surface into the mineral seam, which can be hundreds of metres below the surface. These tunnels are used to transport machinery that extracts the mineral.
Underground mining accounts for 60% of world coal production, but it is less common in Australia, making up around 35% of raw coal production. This method is also used to mine metallic minerals like gold and copper. The two main types of underground mining in Australia are bord-and-pillar and longwall mining.
- Bord-and-pillar: Bord-and-pillar, or room-and-pillar, is the oldest underground mining technique and was common throughout before longwall mining began in the 1960s. This method uses a grid of tunnels and involves progressively cutting panels into the coal seam whilst leaving behind pillars of coal to support the mine. This method has been in steady decline as more efficient technologies are introduced but is still used in a small number of mines across the state, like the Chinese majority-owned Yancoal’s Tasman Mine near Newcastle.
- Longwall mining: Longwall mining revolutionised underground coal mining with its capacity for safe, cost-effective and efficient large-scale extraction. Longwall mining uses mechanical shearers to cut coal away whilst hydraulic-powered supports hold up the roof of the mine. As coal is removed, the supports are moved forward and the roof is collapsed behind them, which can result in subsidence. Longwall mining is more efficient than bord-and-pillar as it does not leave behind pillars of coal, so more of the mineral resource can be extracted. One example of a longwall mine is Centennial Coal’s Angus Place mine, near Lithgow.
A newer technique is block-caving , where mineral ores – like gold and copper – are extracted by collapsing the mineral deposits under their own weight. Australia’s first block cave mine opened in 1997 near Parkes, in Central West NSW. Located at Northparkes Mines, it is part of Rio Tinto’s Mine of the Future program, which aims to make mining more efficient and safer through increased automation and remote operation.
Key periods in Australian mining history
The Australian mining industry has ebbed and flowed with economic cycles. The Goldrush of the 1850’s led to the increased importance of mining to the Australian economy. Other post WWI and WWII periods saw considerable growth.
In recent times the Australian mining industry experienced an extended phase of strong growth from around 2005 to early 2013 and again from 2018 into 2019. There has been considerable recent investment and construction of major projects.
Equipment used for Australian mining
The Australian mining industry uses major capital goods for undertaking mining works including:
Dozers, Excavators, Shovels, Trucks, Drills.
There are typical variants of these for surface and underground mining. While Australian manufacturers have developed some substantial capital equipment, the vast majority is sourced from overseas and assembled here by the subsidiaries of foreign capital equipment companies.
An overwhelming majority of heavy/earth-moving equipment is imported.
The US is one of the largest exporters of mining equipment to Australia, with Japan, China and Germany being other important sources of imported equipment. Major players such as Caterpillar, Komatsu, Wirtgen, Joy Global and Liebherr have a strong presence in the market.
Smaller-scale local manufacturers cater to niche and specialized markets and are particularly competitive in mining-related software, fine coal cleaning and process control, and strata reinforcement technology.
There are more than 550 Australian mining equipment and technology suppliers including world leading mining brands.
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Opportunities in the Australian mining business
Australia is a high-cost labour market and accordingly many mines are seeking to reduce labour costs with automation. Australian mines operate many semi-autonomous or autonomous vehicles and it is expected that this trend will continue in future years. While the adoption of autonomous technology has been strongest in the Iron Ore sector many other Australian mining operations are considering the benefits of automation.
The Australian mining industry also a leading early adopter of technologies such as mobile and wearable technologies.
Safety in mining | Australian mining safety
Australian mining is one of the safety mining industries globally. Australia has progressively improved its’ safety record through the development of a risk-based approach to all mining-related activities. The industry was traditionally heavily unionised and subsequently miners working conditions and slary levels were one of the best internationally. In 2005, Australasian Mine Safety Journal was established to provide sharing of information and best practices to the industry.
Australian mining safety technology has been at the forefront of the world particularly in gas detection and monitoring, hazard identification and recording and a range of safety monitoring technologies and sensors. Some notable disaster have also occurred in Australian mining industry operations.
New Australian Gold Mine Creswick
The Creswick Gold mine in the Victorian goldfields was the site of The New Australasian No.2 Deep Lead Gold Mine. No one could have imagined that in the small but prosperous town in 1882 there would occur the worst gold mining accident in Australia – a record that stands to this day.
At 4:45 am, Tuesday 12 December 1882, 29 miners became trapped underground by flood waters that came from the flooded parallel-sunk No.1 mine shaft, only five men survived and made it to the surface.
Despite two days of frantic pumping the waters filled the mine shaft. The trapped men scrawled last notes to their loved ones on billy cans before they drowned. Some of these have been kept and still bear the messages. The men that perished left 17 widows and 75 dependent children.
The findings revealed that ‘no danger of flooding had been apprehended either by the manager or any of the miners who were examined, although a softness and “fretting” had been observed in the face for a couple of days prior to the inburst taking place…” Read more on the AMSJ story of the Creswick Disaster.
In 1883 a coal mine was opened near Mount Kembla in the Illawarra District of New South Wales. In 1902 there was an explosion in the mine and 96 men and boys lost their lives, either while at work or in the course of trying to save the lives of others. It remains Australia’s greatest peacetime mining disaster
Every family in the village lost a relative. A service of commemoration is held annually on 31 July at the Mount Kembla Soldiers’ and Miners’ Memorial Church. Read more on the Mount Kembla disaster
Balmain Colliery was located in Birchgrove, New South Wales and produced coal from 1897 until 1931 and natural gas until 1945. During this period, 10 miners lost their lives in three separate incidents:
1900 On 17 March 1900, six miners were being lowered down the Birthday shaft. At 1,424 feet the bucket they were travelling in caught on a projection, tipped over and five of the six men fell to their death in the shaft. As a result of this accident, the Mining Act was amended to provide guide rails in shafts to prevent bucket swinging or overturning.
1932 In 1932, a year after the mine closed, a six-inch bore was sunk below the Birthday shaft to pipe Natural Gas to the surface. During the sinking of the bore, two men were killed when the gas ignited and exploded.
1945 During the sealing of the Birthday shaft on 20 April 1945, a rudimentary test was being undertaken which ignited escaping gas and caused an explosion below the seal. The company manager and two men were killed in the accident and another two men injured.
North Mount Lyell
On 12 October 1912, the North Mount Lyell Fire caused the death of 42 miners, and required breathing apparatus to be transported from Victorian mines at great speed, to rescue trapped miners. The subsequent royal commission was inconclusive as to the cause
On Wednesday 23 March 1887 at 2.30 pm, an explosion occurred at the Bulli Colliery in New South Wales which resulted in the deaths of 81 men and boys. At the time numerically this was Australia’s largest coal mine disaster and today remains the second worst mine related disaster in Australian history.
A special commission was set up to investigate the explosion and concluded:
..that the explosion was caused by marsh gas or carbonic hydrate that had accumulated at the face. That the immediate cause was probably the flame from an overcharged shot fired by a miner in the coal in No. 2 Heading.
This gas explosion propagated a coal dust explosion and travelled towards the fresh air at the surface. The commission was also of the opinion that the Deputy, Overman and to a lesser extent the Manager, were all guilty of contributing negligence. Read more on the Australian mining Bulli Mine Disaster
On 9 November 1965, a pocket of gas ignited in a panel several hundred yards from the main shaft and killed four miners. Ten mining rescue teams and the Southern Mines Rescue Station worked all night to extinguish the fire.
The Mount Mulligan coal dust explosion killed seventy-five men. Located in North Queensland, west of Cairns near present-day Collinsville, the Mount Mulligan mine was opened just six years before a series of horrifying explosions ripped through the coal mine on the morning of 19 September 1921. The explosion could be heard 30 kilometres away and devastated the people of the fledgling Mount Mulligan township.
Seventy-five workers were killed. There were no survivors. Only 11 of the bodies were retrieved in what stands as the third most deadly coal mining accident in Australia. The explosions were so powerful that they killed four people who had merely been standing at the mouth of the pit at the time. Read more of the Australian mining Mount Mulligan Disaster
Four serious accidents have occurred at mines in the Central Queensland town of Moura. The first accident took the lives of 13 men in September 1975. In July 1986 there was an explosion at Moura Number 4 Mine. 12 coal miners lost their lives in this disaster that sparked controversy after experts claimed the accident was avoidable. Another explosion killed two men in January 1994 and just eight months later another explosion deep underground took the lives of 11 men. Read more of the Australian mining Moura Mine disaster
On 26 June 2000, at the Bronzewing Gold Mine in Western Australia (400 kilometres from Kalgoorlie), 18,000 cubic metres of sand-slurry, sludge, mud and rock broke through a storage wall. Two men (Timothy Lee Bell, 21, Shane Hamill, 45) were killed and eight escaped the ‘accident’. It took over a month to retrieve the men from the site.
On 25 April 2006, part of an underground gold mine at Beaconsfield in Tasmania collapsed. One miner, Larry Knight, was killed by the rock fall, and two others, Brant Webb and Todd Russel, were trapped, leading to a rescue mission that took two weeks to get them out alive. Read more on the Beaconsfield mining accident
Box Flat Mine Disaster
At the Box Flat mine near Ipswich 17 miners were lost after an underground gas explosion occurred on 31 July 1972. Another man died later from injuries sustained in the explosion. The mine tunnel mouths were sealed and the mine closed shortly after.
It was an explosion that saw both the men’s and part of the mine’s end, in addition to causing injuries to a further 14 mine workers, eight of whom were not even positioned underground, but rather at the conveyer belt entrances. One man, Clarrie Wolski, died some 14 months later in 1974 due to the terrible injuries he sustained. It was, as stated in the Mining Warden’s Court Inquiry that followed, “an explosion of considerable magnitude”. In an interview with the Courier Mail in 2012, a former Ipswich miner, Beres Evans, told the newspaper it shook local homes. “We thought it was an earthquake,” Mr Evans said.
Unions in Australian mining
While several Unions represent workers across the Australian mining industry, the CFMEU is most well known. The CFMMEU has been actively representing mining and energy workers now for more than 150 years and is arguably one of the most powerful union movements in Australia.
It represents members working in underground and open cut coal and metals mines, the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity (predominantly from coal-fired power stations), the petrochemical industry and iron ore mining and transportation.
The CFMEU has been a strong advocate for safety and removing workers from dangerous conditions in workplaces across the Australian mining industry. It has a current focus around casualisation in the industry where a number of the workforce have believed to forgo the right to maintain employment relationships.
The CFMEU says it fights to continuously improve workplace health and safety, for fair workplace deals that recognise the contribution of mining and energy workers, for secure, permanent jobs and for investment in the regional communities that sustain the Australian mining industry.
Companies entering the Australian mining industry should understand and work with unions to achieve mutually beneficial benefits to its members.
History of the CFMEU
The Union was first federally registered in 1915 as the Australasian Coal & Shale Employees Federation (ACSEF). Amalgamations in the 1990s, including with the Federated Mine Mechanics Association (FMMA), expanded industry coverage, creating the United Mineworkers Federation of Australia (UMFA). After a further series of amalgamations, the union became the Mining & Energy Division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). The CFMEU is now one of Australia’s largest unions.
Web Resources for Australian mining
- Australian Mining publications: https://www.miningreview.com.au/, https://www.qmeb.com.au/
- Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (AusIMM): http://www.ausimm.com.au
- Australasian Tunnelling Society (ATS): http://www.ats.org.au
- Australian Drilling Industry Association (ADIA): http://www.adia.com.au
- Australian Institute of Geoscientists (AIG): http://www.aig.org.au
- Austmine: http://www.austmine.com.au/
- Geoscience Australia: http://www.ga.gov.au/scientific-topics/minerals/mineral-resources
- Minerals Council of Australia (MCA): http://www.minerals.org.au
- Mining & Energy Services Council of Australia (MESCA): http://www.mesca.com.au
- Mining Safety (Australasian Mine Safety Journal): www. amsj.com.au
- Mines Rescue NSW: https://www.coalservices.com.au/mining/mines-rescue/
- Mines Rescue Queensland: http://www.qmrs.com.au/
- Office of the Chief Economist: https://www.industry.gov.au/about-us/our-structure/office-of-the-chief-economist (produces the Resources and Energy Quarterly publication)
- Mining Union – CFMEU Union https://me.cfmeu.org.au/