Lesson 16 / 07
currently in the midst of a mining boom, equalling or exceeding any that
have gone before. Unlike
previous occasions however, the principal element involved, on this
occasion, is not gold, or even nickel, but iron ore.
The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics [“ABARE”]
projects commodity exports in 2007 to be worth A$117 billion, of which
A$ 18.5 billion will arise from iron ore and A$ 15.5 billion from
metallurgical coal for steel making.
With worldwide demand rocketing, Australia has recently become
the world’s leading exporter of iron ore, and after China and Brazil,
is the third biggest producer.
is It ?
The chemical symbol
for the element iron is Fe, from the Latin for iron, ‘ferrum’.
Historically it is the most useful of metals. In the form mainly
of steel, it is estimated that, in volume, 20 times more of it is used
than all other metals combined. After
alumina, it is the Earth’s second most commonly occurring metal, and
the fourth most abundant element, after oxygen, silicon, and alumina.
It is estimated that approximately 5% of the Earth’s crust is
comprised of iron.
Iron is rarely
found in pure form. Small
deposits of such are found occasionally.
They are thought to be the remains of meteorites.
Rather iron generally is found in a variety of forms from which
iron is extracted, including the most common form in Australia,
haematite [from the Greek
for blood stone, a reference to its colour], limonite, magnetite and
siderite [from the Greek word for iron, ‘sideros’].
Although deposits occur occasionally above ground, most
commercial deposits are found just below the surface and are mined by
Ore is probably
best thought of as paydirt; that is to say rock or dirt with a
sufficient concentration of a desired commodity, in this case iron, to
make it economic to go through the process of extracting it.
Generally the ore mined in Australia is particularly rich,
typically comprising more than 60% iron.
is It ?
proven reserves of high-grade iron ore are in excess of 15 billion
tonnes and are among the largest in the world.
In addition, there exists many times more reserves of lesser
grade ore. [To put that into perspective, in 2006 Australia produced 275
million tonnes of iron ore, of which 248 million tonnes were exported,
whilst total world seaborne transport of iron ore was 880 million
Nearly 90% of
Australia’s reserves are in Western Australia, 80% of which are
located in the Pilbara region. Most
of the Pilbara ore is haematite from the Hamersley Ranges, although
limonite is mined at Robe River. To
the north of the Pilbara, in the Kimberley region, iron ore is mined at
Cockatoo Island, whilst to the south of the Pilbara iron ore is mined in
the Midwest Region, and in the Goldfields Region at Koolyanobbing.
The various mines are serviced by an extensive network of railway
lines and a number of ports. In
2006, W A produced 98% of Australian iron ore production.
Iron ore is also
mined in South Australia from haematite in the Middleback Ranges on the
Eyre Peninsula near Port Lincoln and which is largely used for domestic
production at Wyalla. Magnetite
is mined in Tasmania at Savage River and pumped as slurry via pipeline
85 kilometres to Port Latta in the state’s NW.
Various other small mines are also in operation throughout the
Until 1915 only
small amounts of iron ore were mined, from various sites throughout the
country. These were for
local production and for specialized uses, such as for flux in lead,
copper and zinc smelters to facilitate the smelting process, for
pigments, and for the making of sulphuric acid, used in the making of
In 1915, mining
began at Iron Knob on the Eyre Peninsula, inland between Port Augusta
and Wyalla. This is
generally regarded as Australia’s first large iron ore mine.
From the mine the ore was hauled to ports on St Vincent’s Gulf,
from where it was shipped to the new steelworks in Newcastle.
Further iron ore mining development followed, particularly in S
In 1936, with
Japanese backing, plans were announced to open a large scale mine on
Koolan Island in the Kimberleys. Paradoxically
however at that time it was thought that Australia suffered from a
scarcity of deposits of iron ore. In
1938, the Federal government placed an export embargo on iron ore.
Ostensibly it was to preserve what was thought to be Australia’s
meagre supplies of ore for local steel producers.
The Japanese thought, with considerable justification, that it
was part of a plan to cripple their steel industry.
The economic affect of the embargo on exports on Australia
however was to remove the incentive to ‘discover’ and develop new
mines, so that the ostensible reason for the embargo made it, in effect,
a self-fulfilling enactment.
Australia, particularly W A, the Federal government began to believe its
own blather. Despite the
defeat of Japan in 1945 the embargo remained in place.
In 1955, Richard Casey, the Minister for External Affairs and a
trained mining engineer, in justifying the continuation of the embargo
said,“Australia was poorly endowed with iron ore resources”.
It had been confidently predicted that Australia’s reserves
would be exhausted by 1965. Yet
this was at a time following Lang Hancock’s discovery in 1952 of the
huge reserves in the Pilbara, which had in fact been noted in government
surveys dating back to the C19.
finally relaxed the embargo in 1960.
Thereafter the impetus for the large-scale development of W A’s
iron ore resources came from Japan.
In one sense, the Federal government had been right; without
infrastructure, transport or purchasers the huge reserves might just as
well not have existed. Between 1950 and 1965, however, Japanese crude steel
production grew from 4.8 million tonnes to 41.2 million tonnes. Distance from Brazil, then the world’s leading supplier of
high grade ore, placed Japanese steelmakers at a considerable cost
disadvantage to closer European steelmakers.
Japan, at that
stage, was buying its ore from 14 different countries. Whilst there was
some reluctance from Japanese steelmakers to place all their supply eggs
in one basket, it made considerable economic sense to chance reliance on
the potentially cheap, abundant and high quality Australian ore.
This they proceeded to do, with considerable economic benefit to
The relaxation of
the Canberra embargo finally enabled a few determined, energetic and
enterprising individuals, particularly Lang Hancock and his partner
Peter Wright in the Pilbara, to realize their dream of developing the
vast iron ore resources of W A. But
it was the amazing Japanese economic boom that occurred over the
following decades which determined the remarkable extent and speed of
that development. And when
the Japanese Economic Miracle began to falter in the 90s, it has been
the emergence of China, having shaken off its communist disincentives,
and with its huge demand for steel for infrastructure and manufacturing,
which has continued to drive Australian iron ore expansion and development
The first few years
of the C21 have proven extremely successful for the Australian iron ore
industry and is a part of the reason why the value of the A$ has reached
US$ .90 in the last few days. Annual
contract price rose 9% in 2003, then successively 18.6%, 71.5%, 19% and
9.5% for 2007. Predictions
that the ‘Age of Metals’ was over, and that their use, particularly
that of steel, would be replaced by plastics and composites, have been
demonstrated to be at least premature.
for the last 40 years has been for an annual benchmark contract price to
be set between the major suppliers [presently 3 companies which control
70% of world supply; Brazil’s CVRD, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton] and
the major steelmakers, formerly the Japanese but increasingly now
Chinese. Once the initial
benchmark price is set by the largest supplier, [presently CRVD] the
other major suppliers usually conform. Supply not sold by contract is sold on the ‘spot’ I e
non-contract] market. Talks
are about to commence to set the 2008 benchmark.
There have been
significant increases in supply; in Australia, 8 major mine expansions
and several new major mines. Yet
demand continues to exceed supply.
The spot price is up 71% for the year.
Analysts predict a 50% increase in the benchmark price for 2008
and that there will be further price increases thereafter.
Mining developments are long term projects.
BHP Billiton has
now declared its intention to seek a significant change in the practice
of selling Australian ore. In
particular it proposes to charge the cost of freight, which until now
has not been included in the Australian contract price, although it has
been with other major suppliers. Needless
to say the buyers are vowing to resist.
proximity to southern, Asia which has developed so rapidly in the last
few decades, particularly China, India and now the Middle East has been
a considerable competitive advantage.
Its political stability and respect for and application of the
Rule of Law has been another.
Thanks to the
mining industry, in particular iron ore, Australia’s economic
prospects for the foreseeable future seem rosy.
There are potential threats, both internal and external.
Externally a major recession triggered by America’s sub-prime
mortgage problems, particularly if, as would be likely, it spread to
Asia, would significantly effect Australia.
The potential for internal threats to arise seem as least as
great. These include a
return to former industrial relation practices, which bedevilled the
industry in the 70s, and the possible application of major new
environmental and conservation regulations.