Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Future is a Big Hole – For Now

By Simon Grose

Being a quarry for the world is not enough but it buys us time to develop a high-tech economy.

The resources boom sees many monster projects underway, like the $42 billion Gorgon natural gas project offshore from Perth and three coal seam gas projects in Queensland estimated to cost around $30 billion each. By 2015 the first loaded gas tankers are due to leave both sides of Australia for China, Japan and Korea.

Gorgon involves the world’s first commercial CO2 geosequestration operation, while coal seam gas has never before been processed into LNG for export. Despite such ambitious innovation and their scale, these projects haven’t really excited the public imagination.

This will likely change in coming months as the approval process for BHP Billiton’s proposed expansion of its Olympic Dam mine in South Australia’s outback cranks towards a final decision next year. The centrepiece of the project is a simple emphatic image – a big hole. Over 11 years the removal of a billion tonnes of overburden will create Australia’s biggest opencut mine, alongside our largest underground mine.

From this pit they expect to increase annual production at least threefold to 750,000 tonnes of copper, 14,500 tonnes of uranium oxide, 700,000 ounces of gold and 2.1 million ounces of silver.

As the Big Australian spends more than a decade digging the big hole near the centre of their continent, the scale of the resources boom will dawn on Australians. As it does, they may recall an article published in The Age last September by the Minister for Innovation, Senator Kim Carr. Headlined “Being the world’s quarry is not enough,” it pointed out that mining accounts for 8% of national GDP and 1.4% of employment while manufacturing contributes 10.2% of GDP and 9.2% of employment.

But those gaps are narrowing as makers of cars and other things close plants and resources projects gather momentum. This trend will continue as long as the resources boom underpins high A$ values, and will accelerate as our manufacturing infrastructure is superseded by new plants in developing countries where wages and other costs are lower.

That’s good for them and good for us – they get new jobs and we get better things like cars and plasma screens at lower prices. And as long as the resources boom continues Australians will still have jobs to go to, albeit beyond the black stump in many cases.

Carr said the challenge is to use the resources bounty to fashion “a vision of what we want the Australian economy to look like in 10, 20 and 30 years time” so that we can “create high-tech and high-wage jobs and attract the investment in research and development”. Carr is right – being a quarry for the world is not enough – but it sure helps to have miners on the team to give us a few more decades to get clever.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (