With the permission of the other party, I post here an exchange of email between myself and a young man who has just enrolled as a first-year mining engineering student. These are not our first email exchanges, but this “set” is more-or-less self-contained, and thus may be of interest to other young people who are contemplating a career in mining.
Here is the first email from the new mining engineering student to me. I had provided him with free access to EduMine, and he starts out commenting on his time on the site.
I’m very sorry about my slow response on this matter, but I felt it would be best if I were to make the most of my time on Edumine, sample as wide a variety of courses as possible, and then respond after mulling over the site. Judging from the materials I sampled, there seemed to be a decent variety, and much of the coursework was written in a fashion that fell somewhere between the formality of a textbook and the familiarity of a conversation. As a whole, the courses seemed very accessible, though that may merely be consequence of my having sought out introductory courses. The difficulty of the material seemed relatively low, comparable to advanced 4-H and schoolwork, while offering quite of bit of information. This is not meant to disparage, rather, the material seemed to have a learning curve that was manageable under adverse conditions. Admittedly, though I did do some of the reading at odd hours of the night, comprehension never ‘dropped off’.
I truly do appreciate the brief access to Edumine. It is refreshing to see coursework that is generally aimed at practical application, and be able to answer the common question of ‘How would I use this information?’ Though this serves as an introduction to further education, it is the best information that I have been able to find online. Seeing the course material seemed to be enough to solidify my interest in the industry, and affirm my belief that my interest is more than a passing fancy. I want to learn more.
I have also taken quite a bit of time to read through your blog, which has been an excellent way to immerse myself in the politics and world of mining. I do have several further questions, though. It is often said that the mining industry is cyclical, but how deeply, and in what fashion? Does the industry tend to be among the first to go, as the demand for raw materials drops, or does it hold on? And furthermore, has the mining industry become somewhat more detached from the US economy, with growth bankrolled by Chinese and Indian growth?
You seem to have a great deal of enthusiasm for the oil sands ( I recall you recently suggested to a young mining engineer to invest in the oil sands as heavily as possibly), but truly, how strong are the longterm prospects for Alberta and McMurray? I know that on paper it seems favorable, being politically stable, possessing enormous reserves, and providing the end user with a product we will continue to consume in increasing quantities. US aims to decrease Mideast oil dependence may someday transcend ideology and become a pragmatic necessity. But at the same time, watching reports and reading stories on the oil sands seems to conjure up parallels to the housing boom, the dotcom bubble, the insanity of gold prices, with the game-changing exception that petroleum products define the modern world and are used by billions of people on a regular basis.
But there surely must be significant challenges and threats that go beyond Greenpeace mucking about in tailing ponds and First Nation dissent. When push comes to shove, the combination of economics and national security tend to prevail. Environmental issues are on a tremendous scale, but there appears to be significant resources being applied, and reclamation has advanced significantly beyond what is popularly perceived. However, every project, group, event, and organization tends to have some sort of challenge or shortfall that rarely makes it to press. Surely there is something similar with the oilsands?
I replied with some comments on issues he raised.
Mining seems to be doing better at present than the general economy. I suspect, as you say, that a great deal of that success in the US has to do with demand from China and India. Although in Canada demand from the US for oil and from the world for potash is pushing success. The uranium mines of Saskatchewan are also producing full-time. The Japanese earthquake may slow demand for uranium somewhat, but keep in mind that China and Russia will forge ahead with their nuclear power plants—see this week’s issue of the Economist.
I sometimes fear for a melt-down of the Chinese economy. Is it a bubble, or will unrest influenced by what is happening in the Arab world ground its growth. I suspect there is a small chance as there are still millions in China who seek a better life—materially at least, even if not intellectually.
That said, it is of course possible that there will be in your life-time a slow-down of mining. It has happened twice in my life time. 1982 and 1995 were bad years. But the things that caused those down-turns are unlikely to occur again. If there is another downturn in mining, it will be for causes we can only guess at. But the point is, in my opinion, that if mining turns down for reasons we cannot fathom now, the rest of the economy will also turn down and probably to a greater extent than mining. Modern life without the products of mining is simply unimaginable: no silver = no computers, cell phones, etc. No gold = no teeth fillings at the worst. No copper = no cars or electricity distribution. No potash = massive food shortages. No oil = more bicycles, but less travel.
I am sometimes very pessimistic about the US economy. I cannot conceive how it can go on with the massive deficits that currently plague it. People have to produce and/or make things. We cannot all consume and provide services to each other without basic production (mining, farming, manufacturing) to support the service economy. I fear that it will take a cataclysmic event in the US to change this reliance of the right to consume in the absence of productivity. I can imagine a few nasty cataclysmic events; all would probably result in a need for more, not less mining.
The point is that I could not at your age have predicted what has happened over the past 40 years. Nor can you predict the next 40 years. All you can do is get educated in the fundamentals of maths, chemistry, finance, management, with a chosen focus and go for it. I chose civil engineering because I wanted to build buildings and large dams. Buildings are still in vogue, but large dams are not. I became a tailings engineer because a large tailings impoundment failed, killed 13, and I became the “expert.”
You will become a graduate mining engineer. They can never take that knowledge away from you. Obviously I hope and believe you will go on to higher degrees. Then some event will occur that will set your course. You probably won’t even notice the event at the time it happens, but when you are old you will look back and say “that was what set me on the path I have followed.”
So do not worry too much. Just get educated in the basics with a chosen focus, and do your best.
As for the oil sands and shutting them down. There are many who shout and oppose, and as well they should, for not everything is done to the best of our ability. The forces of opposition, I believe, help to keep things honest and proper.
I cannot conceive how we could shut down the oil sands. They are the only safe source of energy we have. Witness the Arab world turmoil and the failure of the Japanese to run a nuclear power plant. As I learnt in Alaska, the north slope oil is running out and will be done within the decade. Suncor and Syncrude will have to make up the difference.
Plus I know we can restore mine-sites. If ever you get to Wenatchee see what has been done with the mine and tailings impoundment I designed and spent two years overseeing construction. It is now a riding stable and wilderness area for the rich of Washington. Google: cannon mine or dry gulch riding stable.
Thus he replied;
I appreciate having your insight on the various questions I’ve had about mining. I truly think it is important to examine the underlying issues and implications despite the necessity of , and from what the powerpoints you had made availible, it seems that recovery is possible, though expensive and subject to the usual delays and financial issues if the mine involved was economically unsound. Predicting the future is a venture that is tenuous at best; if there are to be problems in the future regarding the economic condition of the United States, I will ride them out to the best of my ability. If all goes as anticipated (dangerous, given what assumptions can do…) by the time I graduate, the economy should have turned about significantly.
The oil sands truly do seem to be a remarkable resource the more I investigate; and if current trends are an indicator of the future, they will play a vital role in supporting a style of life that many have become accustomed to. If you still are in need of a student assistant, I would be more than happy to assist.