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Exploring our opportunity - Laura Tyler, Chief Technical Officer, PDAC 2021


Before we start, I would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which I am speaking - the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains. I recognise your continuous connection with country, and pay my respects to your cultural heritage and spiritual beliefs. On behalf of BHP, I would also like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which all speakers and conference attendees join us from for this event.

I am Laura Tyler, the Chief Technical Officer at BHP. For those of you who are unfamiliar with BHP, we are a global, diversified resources company that owns and operates assets across iron ore, copper, nickel, coal and petroleum.

I have been in the industry for over 25 years and have been lucky enough to work in the UK, South Africa, Canada and Australia, where I am speaking to you from today.

It’s been an exciting and occasionally challenging journey for me: from the dynamic winters of northern Canada, the colours of South Africa, the tropical heat of Queensland to the desert conditions in outback Australia. I consider myself very fortunate in all that I’ve seen and done. It also means I’m afforded the pleasure of sharing my stories and my views at global events like this. And, while I’m disappointed to not be back in Canada meeting old and new friends, I am grateful that we are able to still come together for one of the most important events in our field. 

Old elements finding new opportunities

The last year has been one of challenge and opportunity for us all.

It is those two themes that will be the focus of my talk today, but before I get into that I want to begin with a story.

The main character in this story is a metal that has recently found a renewed sense of popularity, and an old favourite of mine… Nickel!

This wasn’t always the case though Nickel wasn’t always in vogue.

Its history has a few twists and turns that are fascinating, and that provide a timely reminder for all of us.
In the 1600s, German miners exploring for copper stumbled upon a previously unknown form of ore. Believing they'd discovered another copper ore, the miners unsuccessfully attempted to extract the copper.

Their efforts yielded little return though.

Irritated by their lack of success, they blamed ‘Nickel’ - a mischievous demon in German mythology - for casting bad luck upon them.

Accordingly, they called the ore “kupfernickel” which translated to "copper demon" .

Lucky for us, not all hope was lost and the element was able to shed it’s evil reputation. Key to this was Axel Cronstedt, a Swedish Chemist who isolated and identified Nickel as a standalone element a few decades later in 1751. His work paved the way for nickel to become a metal essential to modern life.

From its humble beginnings as an accidental discovery, it soon became a vital ingredient in stainless steel that was then applied to pots, pans and cutlery to superalloys in jet engines and medical equipment to coins. As scientists learnt more, nickel was used more.

Fast forward to today and we are still learning. Nickel is fast becoming the ‘work horse’ of battery technology , playing an essential role in the world’s efforts to decarbonise.

Far from being the ‘demon’ it was once described as, we are finding new ways to utilise this metal to make the world a better place.

This may sound like a history lesson to some. But to me, it’s a story of mystery, science and innovation. If only those German miners could see what the amazing things their discovery is being used for now. 

Why we are here

Stories like this remind me why I love this industry and it reminds me why companies like BHP exist. This is simply explained by our company purpose:
‘to bring people and resources together to build a better world.’

This connects us with what we do on a daily basis as well the broader reason our industry exists.

We know the world faces many challenges. But we also know the answer to many of them can be found in the very resources our industry finds and produces.
Our products are essential for global economic growth and the transition to a lower carbon world.  And we provide the commodities that improve the lives of billions of people in developing nations.
We also help engineers realise the dream of cleaner power, more efficient transportation, communications and battery storage.

As exploration professionals we are vital to the delivery of a better future. We play our part at the front end of the value chain, and we unlock the resources the world needs.

Of course - like the German miners in the 1600’s - we still face challenges. Perhaps not ‘demon’ metals, but the barriers between us and success are ever present. And like them all those centuries ago, what we find and develop today will underpin the quality of life for centuries to come.

The great thing about the story though, is that just like scientific progress, it does not end. Our scientists continue to work on how we can discover, extract, and use many different elements in new, sustainable, and innovative ways to improve our lives.

A golden opportunity

At BHP, we believe in exploration. Discovery is the lowest cost path to growth and value-add for BHP’s shareholders. It is absolutely critical for our future and reflected in our strategy and our plans.

We will increase our presence around the world, including opening an office in Toronto, the home of PDAC!

To own the best assets in the best commodities, you have to look for them and develop them well ahead of time. To do so, we need to imagine what the world could look like in 50 or even 100 years from now. This is a dynamic process that involves rigorous analysis, reflecting a constantly evolving world. This process helps identify what commodities we want to be in, and where we see value and rent based on our global endowment studies and supply / demand analyses.

An example of great success in this process and sustainable long term investment, is our Mt Whaleback mine in Northern Western Australia. BHP sought and developed this asset based on a view that steel was desperately needed to drive the world economy well in to the future. We were right, and it has produced some of the highest-grade iron ore in the world for more than 50 years.  

Long-term investment in our collective future is what we strive for. But we can’t be single minded.

We understand it is not practical, nor economical, to just rely on a single thread of strategy to deliver success. We know we must use our competitive advantage to find them ourselves and support our selected partners in realising discovery together. And we are prepared to make the right early entry investments and acquisitions under the right terms to deliver growth options.

We are also intimately aware that – how we explore - the future does not lie in nostalgia; we cannot just do more of what we’ve done for the last 30 years.

We must innovate.

This won’t be easy, but it will be worthwhile. I strongly believe that the golden years of exploration are ahead of us. We just need to harness what Mr Crondstedt, and the millions of scientists that followed, found to be successful to build a better world: we must think big, innovate and apply new technology to unlock opportunities to safely find the resources of the future.

Challenge #1: The quest for quality

Before I explore this opportunity more, let me turn to what I believe are two of the biggest challenges we, as an industry, face: a scarcity of high quality resources and the necessity of higher standards of sustainability.

The current residual search space  for new mineral districts is reducing , and future districts now lie in areas of high country risk, or in lower-risk jurisdictions under cover. The minerals industry is in transition to undercover exploration much like the petroleum industry transformation to deep sea exploration some decades ago. To do this, we must rely on a holistic evaluation of the mineral system, gaining a full appreciation of the potential of a district through an understanding of its formation.

Discovery of what we call ‘Tier 1’ resources has therefore become more technically challenging, but at the same time, more engaging.

The other part to this, which is many times more difficult, is finding actual mines…large, high quality discoveries that have a realistic chance at feasibly being developed into operational assets within an appropriate timeframe.

In practice, this means more discoveries like Oak Dam in South Australia. 

In 2017, our metals exploration team took a fresh approach to this mature district.  They challenged the paradigm, and looked very closely at the science through the lens of the Mineral Systems Framework and the knowledge we had gained from on IOCGs from Olympic Dam.  In just 4 years, the team made a discovery under 800 metres of cover, outlining mineralisation with intercepts including 58 metres @ 2.49% Cu, and 1.2 g/t Au  over wide areas.  It is mineral system understanding and application that will distinguish success in the future. 

I am also proud to note the BHP metals exploration team will present on this discovery story on at PDAC this week.

Challenge #2: Higher expectations of sustainability

The second test that I’d like to talk about is one that is certainly not specific to our industry, but a huge challenge to everyone all over the world… sustainability.

The impact of emissions, the stewardship of our planet, and how we maintain the quality of our atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and terrasphere are key concerns.

Society and our stakeholders are acutely aware of the impact we as an industry can have on the earth. And their expectations of us – quite rightly - continue to evolve and grow.

The interesting catch to all this is that under even the most aggressive decarbonisation scenarios, the world needs more minerals, and therefore more discoveries leading to more mines.

In a 1.5-degree scenario the world is expected to need almost twice as much steel in the next 30 years as it did in the last 30.

Copper production will have to double over the next 30 years to aid the development of renewable technologies and distribution of new charging infrastructure.

And nickel production will have to increase nearly four-fold to power the next generation of battery technology and the forecast demand for electric and hybrid vehicles.

And the world will still need oil and gas to power mobility and everyday modern life on the pathway to decarbonisation.

Finally, Potash will be vital to ease pressure on scarce, arable land.

So let’s take a closer look at Copper, because many renewable technologies are copper intensive.

High-quality copper is becoming harder to find and extract. As grades decrease, strip ratios rise and deposits get deeper, more water and energy is required for the same amount of copper output.

In order to fully seize the opportunity to be part of a sustainable future we need to minimise our material and environmental footprints. Our focus must be on high quality resources defined by more extractable metal per kilowatt hour and ton of water.

This must now be a key consideration in the exploration and evaluation phase: we must find resources that can become mines, and operate feasibly under higher sustainability standards.

Opportunity #1: Technology

Technology will be key to enabling this, and provides a path into a far more optimistic part of my talk.

The majority of the exploration industry thinks that the golden age of discovery is behind us. That industry was based on using technology geared to at-or-near surface discovery. However it is my belief that the golden age of discovery is ahead of us.

Because by harnessing technology we can make the Earth at 400 metres depth as transparent to exploration as the surface of the Earth is today. And we can do this in a number of ways:

Firstly, through systems. For more than two centuries we have hunted for deposits.  But these are the smallest expression - and therefore the hardest to find - of the mineral systems in which they manifest.  Taking a more holistic view of the systems themselves will allow us to create new insights. My team in South Australia looked carefully at the mineral system in the Oak Dam example I mentioned earlier. This gave us new insights in to how we can further evolve our approach.

Secondly, by utilising new technology. Significant technology investment does not guarantee success though.  At BHP, a rigorous assessment of capability gaps set in a context of challenging geological and regulatory environments shapes our investment.  As an example, real-time sensors, multi-physics arrays, and data analytics all accelerate decision-making, reduce the logistical effort, and improve confidence in discovery.

Specifically in multi-physics, BHP is collaborating with industry partners to develop the next generation of sensors, designed to maximise data collection and minimise the footprint on the ground.  Parallel acquisition of magnetics, electromagnetics, gravity, and potentially passive seismic geophysics will then allow content to be assessed in a holistic petrophysical property model.

In our nickel mines in Western Australia, we have partnered with Ideon Technologies to use leading-edge cosmic ray muon detectors – underground sensors that can image sulphide orebodies above them – to aid detection and delineation of resources.

In data analytics, we are also developing strong partnerships with some of the leading innovators in their fields.  In Western Australia we are partnering with ‘Sensore’, a company that has spent more than a decade investing in a world-class data analytics workflow for discovery in the Yilgarn. 

In northern Chile, we have partnered with ‘DeepIQ’, a company translating its expertise from petroleum basin analysis to hard rock discovery.

So how realistic is tangible technological change?

Let’s look at the example of the growth of discovered petroleum resources in the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1960, offshore wells were enabled by the development of drilling technology, allowing the extensions of known onshore systems to be tracked onto the continental shelf.

Forty years later, the next generation of offshore resources was enabled by advances in imaging technology- specifically the acquisition and processing of marine 3D seismic.

We were now able to detect favourable geology better.

Since the turn of the century, discoveries in deeper water have been enabled by systems thinking…leading to the novel concept that petroleum systems could be effective in these environments. This then drove technology to better image systems, delineate targets, and drill and then produce the resources in this technically challenging environment.

Picture this as the minerals industry unlocking the wealth of resources under cover over the next decades…systems thinking to better predict the location of resources, technology to better detect key elements of the systems, and more effective extraction technologies for resources at depth. This is certainly possible and in my mind, highly plausible!

Opportunity #2: Collaboration

This collaboration presents tremendous opportunities to magnify our understanding and insights. 

I have pointed out a few examples of our external partners, so let me describe an example that showcases the benefits of internal collaboration within BHP.

As many of you will know, we are a unique resources company in that we run both petroleum and minerals businesses. What you might not know is that this is a competitive advantage we are using to tremendous effect, particularly as it relates to exploration.

Every few years, our Petroleum Exploration and Appraisal team conducts a Global

Endowment study. It is a key input into our business planning and helps us allocate resources to parts of the world that have the highest potential to be developed into productive assets. Quite separately, our Minerals teams do the same thing.

Well that was the case until recently, when our Petroleum and Minerals teams got together to reinvent the way this process works to the benefit of all involved.

The collaboration drew on multiple data sets, multiple technical backgrounds, and multiple disciplines and skills, to amplify our understanding of mineral systems and yet-to-find search spaces. One outcome was the development of a new application – aptly titled “Wormhole”.  This allowed us to move geologic maps through space and time. It took the team just 24 hours to rotate 30,000 maps rather than an estimated nine months using commercially available software.

This is a simple example, yet shows the amazing opportunity to collaborate on problems that were previously thought as unsolvable. In my opinion, It is not possible to have too many of these relationships. There is always something to be gained – whether it be clear and tangible outcomes, to lessons learnt that we can share and improve on.

Collaboration and true partnerships, internal and external, are what will propel us in to the future of exploration. To us, the benefits of collaboration are so obvious and too important to ignore, so a key call out from me today is that BHP is ‘open for business’.

Building a better world

To conclude, I’d like to return to the theme of opportunity.

Whether you are involved with exploration directly or indirectly, it should be clear that we all have a great opportunity in front of us.

We are the thread that links the past with the future. Like the characters in our Nickel story, what we find and develop today will shape the lives of future generations.

How we do that is up to us, and today I have outlined why I think collaboration, technology and a greater focus on sustainability will underpin a golden era for our industry.

From where I sit, the opportunity in front of us is huge. I see great prosperity as we collaborate to discover the commodities of the future…faster, more efficiently and more sustainably than ever before.

It is a great moment for BHP and for the sector, and with science as our guiding light, as well as a dedication to safety and innovation, I know we can find and develop the resources that will truly build a better world.