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Visualizing the Size of Mine Tailings

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VCE Mine Tailings V2

Visualizing the Size of Mine Tailings

On January 25th, 2019, a 10-meter tall wave traveling 120 km/h, washed 10 million m3 of mining waste from the Brumadinho tailings dam over the Brazilian countryside killing somewhere between 270 and 320 people.

This was a manmade disaster, made from mining the materials we use daily. Every copper wire in your house, steel frame in an EV, or any modern appliance comes from mining.

Mining leaves behind waste in the form of tailings stored in dams or ponds around the world. This infographic takes a look at the estimated size of one part of this waste, tailings, visualized next to the skyline of New York City as a benchmark.

Quantifying Mining’s Material Impact

In the wake of the Brumadinho tailings failure, the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) began a review with institutional investors and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), to survey tailings facilities around the world.

The Global Tailings Review tracked a total of 1,743 unique facilities containing 44,540,000,000 m3 of tailings. This dataset represents only 30.2% of global commodity production.

However, the review estimated the total number of active, inactive, and closed facilities is around 8,500. If we use the assumptions for the 1,743 estimate to calculate for the 8,500 facilities, a total of 217,330,652,000 m3 of tailings are in storage globally.

What are Tailings?

Not all rock that comes out of the ground is metal. Miners find, remove, and refine rocks that carry a small amount of metal we need.

According to the USGS, 72 billion tonnes of material produced just over 10 billion tonnes of ore. Only 14% mined material makes it to processing for metals.

Waste rock (tonnes)Material Sent to Mill (tonnes)Ore Produced (tonnes)Tailings (tonnes)
72,000,000,00018,800,000,00010,180,000,0008,850,000,000

Tailings are what is left over after mills separate the metal from the mined rock. The processed material “tailings” comes from the “tail” end of a mining mill and comprise fine particles mixed with water forming a slurry. Mining companies will store this waste in dams or ponds.

Not All Minerals Are Equal: Tailings Contribution by Commodity

Not all minerals are equal in their contribution to tailings. The grade, quantity, and the process to extract the valuable metals affect each metal’s material impact.

Mineral% Contribution to Global Tailings
Copper46%
Gold21%
Iron9%
Coal8%
Phosphate4%
Lead and Zinc3%
Nickel2%
Platinum Group Elements1%
Bauxite1%
Uranium<1%
Chromium<1%
Molybdenum<1%
Tin<1%
Vanadium<1%
Manganese<1%
Niobium<1%
Rare Earths<1%
Lithium<1%
Other minerals1%
Total100%

A renewable future will be mineral intensive and will inevitably produce more mining waste, but growing awareness around mining’s true cost will force companies to minimize and make the most of their waste.

Turning a Liability into an Asset

While tailings are waste, they are not useless. Researchers know there remains economic value in tailings. Natural Resources Canada estimated that there is $10B in total metal value in Canadian gold mining waste.

Rio Tinto has produced borates from a mine in the Mojave Desert which has left behind more than 90 years’ worth of tailings. The company was probing the tailings for gold and discovered lithium at a concentration higher than other U.S. projects under development.

According to UBC’s Bradshaw Initiative for Minerals and Mining professor Greg Dipple, the mining industry could help society store carbon. For over a decade, he has researched a process in which tailings naturally draws CO₂ from the air and traps it in tailings.

A Material World

While the majority of mining companies manage tailing dams safely, the issue of the material impacts of mining on Earth remains.

Mining of metal has grown on average by 2.7% a year since the 1970s, and will continue to grow. The importance of the size of tailings is critical to address proactively, before it comes rushing through the front door, as it did in Brazil.

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The Periodic Table of Commodity Returns (2013-2022)

This table shows the fluctuating returns for various commodities over the past decade, from energy fuels to industrial and precious metals.

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periodic table of commodity returns over last ten years

The Periodic Table of Commodity Returns (2013-2022)

Trying to predict which commodities will come out on top in any given year is tricky business—especially during this turbulent period in markets.

By looking back at previous years, investors can gain insights into long-term trends and patterns in commodity prices. To help better understand these trends, U.S. Global Investors releases a visualization called the Periodic Table of Commodity Returns at the outset of each year.

This year’s edition looks back over the past decade of returns between 2013 and 2022, and features an interactive design that allows users to sort returns by various categories including returns, volatility, and other groupings.

Editor’s note: Because of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, regional benchmarks for some commodities (coal, natural gas) had much bigger price divergences than is typical. In this case the graphic focuses in on U.S. regional benchmarks like Powder River Basin coal and Henry Hub natural gas prices. These prices may differ from price action seen around the world.

More Volatility, but Positive Returns

After 2021 saw an impressive surge in commodity prices as the world reopened post-pandemic, 2022 brought another year of positive returns for the asset class that were defined by high levels of volatility.

The broad-based S&P Goldman Sachs Commodity Index (GSCI) surged 52.1% in the first five months of 2022, as supply disruptions and fears across grains, metals, and energy fuels were spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The second half of the year saw prices cool as the U.S. continued to release crude oil from its strategic petroleum reserve while Russia and Ukraine established an agreement to enable grain and agricultural exports, quelling fears of extended supply disruptions.

The result? In the last seven months of the year the S&P GSCI nearly completed a return trip and only ended up rising 8.7% in 2022 overall.

Commodity2022 Returns
Lithium72.49%
Nickel43.13%
Natural Gas (Henry Hub)19.97%
Corn14.37%
Platinum10.90%
S&P Goldman Sachs Commodity Index (GSCI)8.71%
Crude oil6.71%
Silver2.77%
Wheat2.76%
Lead-0.05%
Gold-0.28%
Palladium-5.89%
Copper-14.13%
Aluminum-16.27%
Zinc-16.34%
Coal (PRB)-48.34%

Another key factor that helped keep commodity prices cool in 2022 was China’s extended lockdowns which slowed down the country’s manufacturing and industrial capabilities. This helped reduce the demand of energy fuels in 2022, along with industrial metals like copper, aluminum, and zinc.

Lithium Continues to Top Commodity Returns

A metal that did shine brightly in 2022 was lithium, which has been newly added to the Periodic Table of Commodity Returns.

After topping the table in 2021 with an outsized price increase of 442.8%, lithium kept its top spot in 2022 with a more modest price increase of 72.5%.

lithium in the commodities ranking 2013-2022

The growing global push towards electric vehicles (EVs) has been a major contributor to the increase in demand for lithium and nickel, which was the second-best performing commodity in 2022 with a price increase of 43.1%. As more countries set targets to phase out gasoline and diesel vehicles, demand for key battery minerals like lithium and nickel is expected to continue to rise.

While the U.S. is working to strengthen its battery metals production and supply chains with $2.8 billion in grants for domestic lithium, graphite, and nickel projects, it will be years before more supply comes online as a result. In the meantime, robust demand for EVs in China has provided a constant need for these battery metals which are currently in short supply.

Energy Price Variance Fueled by Regional Uncertainty

After 2021 saw energy fuels dominate the top spots after lithium, energy fuel prices in 2022 were more volatile with more scattered returns. Natural gas was the only fuel which saw double-digit returns at a 19.9%, with crude oil returning 6.7% and coal at the bottom of the table at -48.3%.

It’s important to keep in mind how geopolitical events and supply disruptions last year affected the regional price differences for energy fuels. While WTI crude oil (North America’s benchmark) increased by 6.7% in 2022, Brent crude oil (Europe’s benchmark) was up 10.4% as Urals crude oil (Russia’s benchmark) fell by more than 26.5%.

Type of Crude Oil2022 ReturnsPrice in U.S. dollars (Jan 17, 2023)
Brent Crude Oil (European benchmark)10.35%$86.72
WTI Crude Oil (North American benchmark)6.72%$81.01
Urals Crude Oil (Russian benchmark)-26.53%$55.60

As a result of the war and ensuing sanctions, the discount of Urals crude oil compared to Brent crude oil went from -$1.72 at the start of 2022 all the way to -$30.71 by the end of the year.

Thermal coal prices faced similar regional divergences, with Powder River Basin (PRB) coal (America’s benchmark for coal) falling by 48.3% this year while Newcastle coal, which is delivered out of the port of Newcastle, Australia primarily to various Asian nations, saw prices skyrocket up by 156.6% in 2022.

After such a wild year with huge variance in commodity prices, we’ll see if 2023 can bring some stability or if high volatility and growing regional price discrepancies will become the norm.

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The Top 10 Best and Worst-Performing Commodities of 2022

The year 2022 was full of volatility for commodity prices. This infographic charts the top 10 best and worst commodities by returns in 2022.

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best performing commodities of 2022

Top 10 Best and Worst-Performing Commodities of 2022

Hard commodities had a roller coaster year in 2022.

While prices for some commodities stabilized after skyrocketing on the heels of the pandemic, others delivered stellar returns. Behind the volatility was a plethora of factors, including the Russia-Ukraine war, the global economic slump, and a drop in China’s demand for materials.

This chart uses price data from TradingEconomics to highlight the 10 best and worst performing hard commodities of 2022. It excludes soft commodities like agricultural products and meat.

Energy Crisis Sets Coal on Fire

The global economic rebound of 2021, which set the fastest post-recession growth pace in the last 80 years, sparked coal prices as energy demand increased. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ignited the spark, with coal prices exploding 157% in 2022.

Consequently, coal was the best performing commodity in 2022, far outperforming the other nine top commodities by returns.

RankCommodity2022 Returns
#1Coal157%
#2Lithium87%
#3Nickel43%
#4Titanium27%
#5Heating oil21%
#6Uranium12%
#7Platinum9%
#8Molybdenum4%
#9Iron ore1%
#10Gold1%

Lithium (carbonate) and nickel prices continue to be supercharged by the demand for EVs and batteries. Since the beginning of 2021, lithium prices have increased 11-fold, and remain elevated at more than $70,000 per tonne.

As a result of high prices for lithium, nickel, and other battery metals, the average cost of lithium-ion battery packs increased in 2022, for the first time since 2010. Battery pack prices are expected to increase in 2023 as well, before falling in 2024.

The year was also positive for uranium as countries revived their nuclear power plans to combat the energy crunch. Notably, Germany extended the lifetime of three plants that were set to shut down in 2022, and Japan announced accelerated restarts for several idle reactors.

What About Crude Oil?

Crude oil is by far the biggest commodity market, and oil prices were the talk of the town for much of 2022.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, WTI crude oil prices rose to their highest level since 2013 by May 2022. However, between June and the end of December, prices fell from around $116 per barrel to $80 per barrel (a 31% fall). Overall, in 2022, crude oil delivered a -3% return.

The erasure of oil’s initial gains can be attributed to the slowdown in economic growth globally, in addition to strict COVID-19 lockdowns in China.

The 10 Biggest Commodity Drawdowns

The negative returns for most commodities can be largely attributed to prices stabilizing at lower levels after bullish runs in 2021 and the beginning of 2022.

RankCommodity2022 Returns
#1Magnesium-54%
#2Tin-37%
#3Propane-37%
#4Rubber-26%
#5Cobalt-26%
#6Natural Gas TTF-20%
#7Naphtha-19%
#8Zinc-18%
#9Copper-16%
#10Aluminum-16%

For example, magnesium prices more than halved in 2022, declining from an all-time high in September 2021. Similarly, tin prices also normalized after rising due to unprecedented demand from the electronics sector during the economic rebound from the pandemic.

The volatility in European natural gas (TTF gas) was one of the highlights of the year. Prices rose to around €340 per megawatt-hour in August as the region looked to cut its reliance on Russia. However, they have since fallen due to milder temperatures in winter and the overall drop in energy demand. Still, on average, TTF prices were 150% higher in 2022 than in 2021.

Copper prices are known to reflect the state of the global economy. It’s safe to say that they did so in 2022, falling 16% as economic growth slowed down and China’s economic activity came to a halt at various times due to Zero-COVID policies.

How Will Commodities Perform in 2023?

According to Goldman Sachs, commodity markets have a bullish outlook for 2023, mainly due to underinvestment and the lack of supply response in 2022.

Rising interest rates worldwide increased the cost of capital in 2022, which drained money from commodity markets. Therefore, supply shortages are expected to persist. As China reopens and eases its lockdown measures, the demand for hard commodities is likely to rebound, putting upward pressure on prices.

J.P. Morgan has similar expectations. The bank expects oil prices to rise due to an increase in demand but projects a “transitional year” for base metals, with prices expected to remain relatively stable. The outlook for precious metals is more positive, with gold prices expected to hover around $1,860 per ounce towards the end of 2023.

Of course, commodity markets are volatile. With various geopolitical and macroeconomic moving parts, it’ll be interesting to see what this year has in store for fuels and metals.

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