Canadian expert accepts key sustainable mining role

Associate Professor Michael Hitch becomes the new Director of the Australian Centre for Sustainable Mining Practices.


Freshly arrived to our shores from the University of British Columbia (UBC), Associate Professor Michael Hitch’s vast industry and research experience, combined with his rock-solid ethical outlook (excusing the pun!), promises to substantially progress the great work already being done by the Australian Centre for Sustainable Mining Practices (ACSMP).

We sat down with him to see what led him to this challenging and important role and find out about his plans for the future.

What was it about this role that attracted you?

I see this role as an extension to my main research interests. I am interested in the purest sense of sustainability which is not just avoiding endeavours which negatively impact future generations, but, actually working to enhance future generations as a result of our endeavours.

What does the ideal mining operation look like to you?

This mine would have a reduced geographic footprint. It would have zero discharge into the receiving environment and would operate in social harmony with affected communities and persons. It would generate wealth from the ground and share this wealth to develop prosperity for the broader community.

What direction do you want to take the Centre in the future?

My vision is to build upon the great work that is ongoing and focus efforts in areas that not only develop best-practices in cooperation with Australian miners, but also work towards sharing this knowledge with nations interested in moving their own mineral sectors forward on a sustainable pathway.

Could you give me a brief rundown of your career to date?

I started as a field geologist in the Northern Ontario bush, mapping the land using a Silva compass and air photos for five months at a time. I lived in a tent and travelled by canoe, and it was very much the ‘Indiana Jones’ kind of environment! From there the evolution of my roles has been fast and furious, ranging from mining operations to investment banking to being a senior executive of some of the world’s largest mining companies, including AngloGold, Ivanhoe Mines and Echo Bay. So far, I have been involved in the development of six mining operations in China, Peru, Mongolia, Lesthoto and Russia.

I completed my PhD in 2006, after almost 22 years of industry experience, and began teaching and research at UBC in 2007. I felt I had had this crazy industrial experience, and I wanted to give something back. I wanted to help young mining engineers make sustainable mining a reality and not just an abstract idea by drawing on my own real-world experiences to put meat on the bones of our mining curriculum.

My research revolves around what I call the Mine of the Future, and what I mean by that is being able to extract the most from the mine for everyone involved or in other words, complete resource utilisation. One facet of that is the research I’m most known for; my carbon dioxide sequestration work, where I’m taking a common and naturally occurring process, mineral carbonation, and effectively ‘industrialising it’ to accelerate the uptake of CO2 in a mineral form that is both thermodynamically stable but also produces a product that can be used for other industrial purposes.

I started as a field geologist in the Northern Ontario bush, mapping the land using a Silva compass and air photos for five months at a time. . I lived in a tent and travelled by canoe, and it was very much the ‘Indiana Jones’ kind of environment!

Having worked on projects in 189 countries, can you give one standout example of sustainable mining success?

I don’t have to travel too far from home to do this! A shining example was in Northern Canada, in our newest territory, Nunavut. I was fortunate to be involved with a company that was developing a mining operation on Inuit land at the time the territory was just being formed and subject to a major land claims settlement.

The agreement negotiated with the Inuit people wasn’t so much about: “We’re going to develop this land, and you, the First Nation, is going to get X percent of the revenue or X percent of the jobs.” It was more of a guiding document that outlined the roles and responsibilities of each of the actors.

For instance, the mine was a “fly in, fly out” operation, so needed a semi-permanent camp. In this camp the negotiated point was that all the services, including catering and housekeeping etc. would be provided by an Inuit company; and if the Inuit company did not exist, then the mining company would provide microfinancing to create the company. This resulted in a large part of the infrastructure of this new mining operation being provided by newly-formed or joint-ventured companies with the Inuit people. It was a remarkable experience and today, these companies continue to be vibrant enterprises that have expanded their reach into other operations throughout the Northwest Territories.

This is sustainability in action: using mineral development to foster prosperity and economic sufficiency that will endure well beyond the operating life of any single operation!

What advice would you give to mining engineers just starting out on their careers?

Be patient! Be patient and hold on for the ride. The mining industry is a dynamic industry that spans the entire globe. The opportunities for young engineers are limitless and will test you every day. It’s important to know that the mining sector is cyclic and closely tied to commodity prices and global economies. The secret to success is never say no. If an opportunity presents itself, say yes! You will develop a experiential ‘toolbox’ that distinguishes you and before you know it, you are in demand… like a hot commodity!

What are you most looking forward to about moving to Australia?

Beaches! We’re really looking forward to the outdoor lifestyle. My wife is very physically fit, she’s a personal trainer and a rehab therapist, and Australia is her Disneyland because everybody is very sporty and into doing things outside, so we’re really looking forward to that.


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