The History and Future of Mining in Australia

10 min

Mining in Australia is a vast industry famous worldwide due to its fascinating history, power in the export market, and as a trendsetter in 'future-proofing' the sector. Furthermore, the high number of Australian mines means that it provides a huge jobs market to citizens and the number of foreign workers who flock to work in the industry due to its global reputation. 

 

In this article, we will explore the rise of mining in Australia, its current status as a pillar of the country's economy, and how it intends to tackle the rising pressures of climate change. Let's start by looking at the current state of play for the industry. 

 

Did you know that the Australian mining industry accounts for 75% of the country's exports? Furthermore, it is a crucial driver of the country's standard of living and economy. Its importance is highlighted in these key figures:

 

  • Approximately 1.2 million people are employed in the Australian mining industry. 
  • It has a $50 billion average annually. 
  • The net worth of resources exported is $160 billion.  



To understand how mining has become such a vital part of Australia's economy and way of life, we have to go back to the industry's humble beginnings and the story of its incredible growth. 


Brief History of Mining in Australia

As a country blessed with an abundant supply of metals and materials, Australia naturally has a long mining history, dating back to the first human habitation around 60,000 years ago. The Aboriginal people initiated the country's first mining phase upon their arrival. This included fossicking for stones suitable for weapons and tools and digging for ochre, which they used for making pigments for the paint used in rock art and body painting, an integral part of their culture and heritage. 

It was upon the arrival of the European settlers that large-scale mining began. The first report of coal was in 1791 and found by a family of escaped convicts, William and Mary Bryant and their children. This discovery was just three years after the arrival of the First Fleet. The exact location is unknown, but it is believed to be in Glenrock Lagoon in the Newcastle and Hunter regions of New South Wales. Just eight years later, in 1799, coal was first exported with a shipment sent to India, and so began a long history of exporting mined materials. 


 

While the start of lead mining in 1841, shortly followed by copper in 1842, were both monumental occasions, the gold rush era in the 1850s put Australia on the global map. Gold was first discovered in New South Wales in 1823, and in the decades following, more and more discoveries were made all over Australia, creating a 'gold rush'. 

 

The news of these gold rushers spread worldwide, and people began emigrating to Australia, and this population growth enabled increased agricultural and industrial development. As a result, the 1850s saw Australia producing approximately 40% of the world's gold. 

 

The first half of the 20th century saw a decline in mining activity, with new mineral finds scarce. However, the second half of the century saw a resource boom, with discoveries including nickel, oil and natural gas, and uranium. These discoveries prompted a resurgence of global interest in the country's mineral resources.  

Australia's Top Mining Resources

As we have seen throughout history, Australia is home to a wealth of materials it has mined and exported to help drive the country's economy. So, let's look at what is considered to be its top four mining resources. 


Iron Ore

Iron Ore is Australia's most significant source of export revenue, with a worth of $133 billion in 2021-22. In 2020, iron ore shipments from the country increased by 31 million tonnes to 867 million tonnes. Australia has been exporting Iron Ore since the 1960s, with its first customer being Japan to help support its post-war redevelopment. 


 

Nowadays, Australia's largest export market is China, the world's biggest steel producer. China accounts for around 80% of Australia's iron ore exports. 




Coal

Australia is the biggest coal exporter in the world. In the 2021 financial year, the export value of coal was approximately $39 billion. As well as being vitally important to the export market, coal helps fuel the country. Coal is primarily used as a fuel to produce electricity and is used to produce around 80% of the nation's electricity needs. 


 

Australia's biggest coal mine is the Peak Downs, located in the Bowen Basin in Queensland. 

Gold 


With a history of gold rushes and an abundance of gold resources, it is no surprise that Australia continues to be a prominent focus in the world's growing demand for gold. In 2021 alone, Australia's gold exports totalled 257 tonnes. 


 

The country's biggest gold mines are in Western Australia, the Boddington Gold Mine and the Kalgoorlie Super Pit. As it holds the title of the largest gold mine reserve in the world, there is no sign of Australia's gold mine industry slowing down any time soon. 

Uranium


Australia is the world's fourth largest producer of uranium, behind Canada, Namibia, and Kazakhstan. It holds 28% of the world's known recoverable uranium resources. Due to the potential uses of the material, Australia exports it worldwide to countries that have agreed to use it for peaceful purposes only. 


 

The supply of uranium's primary use is to supply fuel for affordable, zero-emission electricity to people worldwide. 

Key Locations of Australian Mines 


With abundant mining materials, it should be no surprise that mining is prevalent throughout Australia. So next, let's explore three key locations and what types of mining occur there. 


Western Australia

Western Australia is widely considered the epicentre of Australian mining and a major force in the industry worldwide. It is home to a vast amount of natural resources and some of the country's largest mines, including the Mount Whaleback mine, the single-biggest open-pit iron ore mine in the world. It is no surprise that WA is the largest iron ore supplier in the world. 


 

Recently, a spotlight has been put on the growing demand for green energy alternatives and battery technologies. Therefore, mineral exploration is underway with a particular focus on Vanadium and Lithium. 

 

Key Facts about mining in Western Australia:


  • 98% of Australia's iron ore is in WA. 
  • 60% of the country's gold reserves can be found there. 
  • More than 20,000 people in WA work in the mining industry. 

These facts alone show the powerhouse that Western Australia is to the country's mining industry. 

Queensland 


Queensland is home to many of the country's major coal mines, most of which are in the Bowen Basin. A stand-out coal mine from the region is Peak Downs, Australia's largest coal mine. 


 

These are exciting times for the Queensland mining industry, as growing demand has meant that explorations for new mines have begun in the north and east of the state, with the potential to create future jobs. 

 

Facts about Queensland Mining 


  • In the 2021/22 financial year, the Queensland mining industry contributed a record $94.6 billion to the Australian economy. 
  • Despite its large number of mines and economic contribution, the industry only takes up 0.1% of the state's surface area. 
  • The industry is directly responsible for nearly 85,000 jobs in Queensland. 


Victoria 


Victoria plays a significant part in Australia's mining history. In 1851, gold was discovered in Ballarat, which started the gold rush which gripped the country and the wider world. It is still a key location today and is filled with potential for future mineral exploration. Victoria is famous for producing gold, brown coal, and antimony.  


 

The state is home to the Forestville Gold Mine, the largest gold mine in Victoria. In 2021, the mine produced 509 oz of gold and was expected to continue until 2033. 

 

Facts about mining in Victoria: 



  • Mining in the industry contributes more than $13 billion to the Australian economy. 
  • There are more than 121,000 jobs in the industry. 
  • Victoria is the country's largest producer of brown coal. This coal generates more than 70% of the state's electricity. 

 

The mining industry in Australia has a rich history and an exciting future ahead of it. If you want to be part of this growing and forward-thinking industry, discover our dedicated Mining, Minerals and Metals page and dig a little deeper into the latest mining jobs in Australia.  

Reducing the Impact of Mining on the Environment 

As we have read, the mining industry is vital to Australia's living standards, jobs market, and economy. It is, therefore, crucial that the sector remains buoyant well into the future. But, like many industries, it must continue to embrace technological advancements and develop a greener and more sustainable future for it to become 'future-proof'. So, let's get an insight into what steps are being made and what still needs to be done. 



 

Increasing social and stakeholder pressure has pushed the mining industry to shine a spotlight on its social, environmental, and governance responsibilities. A 2019 report by the research think tank Australia Institute showed that the mining industry and Australia, as a whole, had work to do around its carbon footprint. 

 

The report showed the following findings: 

 

  • Australia has just 0.3% of the world's population but produces 1.2% of world emissions.
  • The county emits more greenhouse gases than 40 countries that have larger populations.
  • Australia is the fifth biggest miner of fossil fuel carbon, ranking behind China, the US, Russia, and Saudi Arabia., 
  • For every Australian citizen, the country mines 57 tons of fossil fuel CO2 annually, ten times greater than the global average. 

 

The findings from such environmental reports highlight the work that needs to be done to create a greener and more sustainable future.

 

In 2021, the Australian Government pledged to act to deliver a target of net zero emissions by 2050 while preserving Australian jobs and generating new opportunities for industries. The then Prime Minister Scott Morrison released Australia's Long Term Emissions Reduction Plan as part of this target. This technology-focused plan sets a realistic path for Australia to achieve their net zero targets, establishing Australia as a leader in low-emissions technology. 

 

But what steps is the Australian mining industry taking to reduce its carbon footprint? Let's take a ground-breaking example of what the mining industry can achieve in reducing its environmental impact. 

Agnew Gold Mine - Setting the Sustainable Mining Example 


The Agnew Gold Mine in Western Australia became the country's first mine powered by a solar, wind, gas, and battery microgrid. With the mining industry being such a heavy contributor to the country's emissions, this is an enormous step. 


 

Delivered by energy giant EDL, the Agnew Hybrid Renewable Microgrid was completed in 2020. The project was given $13.5 million in funding by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) under their Advancing Renewables Program. It is Australia's largest hybrid renewable microgrid. Furthermore, it is the first in the country to use large-scale wind generation on a mine site. 

 

 The mines microgrid consists of four key components: 

 

  • Five 110m wind turbines delivering 18MW.
  • A 10,710-panel solar farm generating 4MW.
  • Off-grid 21mw gas/diesel engine power plant. 
  • A 13MW/4MWh battery system. 



The mine's renewable hybrid microgrid has proven that a remote mining operation can be powered by high-penetration renewable energy whilst protecting the nation's energy security. Stuart Matthews, the Gold Fields Executive Vice President, commented on its success:


 

"This is a very clear demonstration of our commitment to reducing our carbon footprint whilst strengthening our security of supply, and paves the way for the industry as a whole to implement renewable solutions."

 

To highlight the effect the microgrid will have on the environment. Here are some key statistics:

 

  • It will abate 46,400 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. 
  • The CO2 removal is the equivalent of taking 12,700 cars off the road. 
  • The power generated is equivalent to powering 11,500 homes per year. 
  • It can provide the mine with more than 50% renewable energy long-term without compromising power quality or reliability.  

 

The Agnew Hybrid Renewable Microgrid has demonstrated the steps the mining industry can take to lead the way into a greener and more sustainable future. Due to the emissions generated by mining in Australia, it is vital to the targets set by world leaders and the survival of our planet that the industry makes radical changes to its environmental impact while ensuring job security and future growth. 

The Rise of Environmental Jobs in Mining 


Due to Government and industry targets around carbon emissions and their impact on the environment, it will be no surprise that environmental roles are becoming more prominent in Australian mining. Here are three key examples: 


Environmental Advisor