Monday, June 21, 2010

Infrastructure and Mineral Wealth

It was announced a week ago that about a trillion dollars worth of mineral deposits had been discovered in Afghanistan. The original story, in The NYT, is a little misleading if you just skim over the introductory paragraphs:
The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.
However, if you read the whole thing carefully, a number of important facts show up later.
In 2004, American geologists, sent to Afghanistan as part of a broader reconstruction effort, stumbled across an intriguing series of old charts and data at the library of the Afghan Geological Survey in Kabul that hinted at major mineral deposits in the country. They soon learned that the data had been collected by Soviet mining experts during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, but cast aside when the Soviets withdrew in 1989.
In other words, these are not "previously unknown deposits," but they were not widely known. To the extent this is "news," the news is that these deposits have been more carefully characterized and quantified during the nearly nine years (!) of US occupation of that country.

I don't know much about the geology of Afghanistan beyond the broad structural setting, but in terms of economic minerals, I've have always seen it described as "poor," and that has always been a little surprising to me. It has a complex history, it is arid, which means exposure is excellent, and it's high relief, which means a great deal of the geologic record should be cut open. In short, even with a largely ignorant first glance, it's the kind of place that I would expect to have some substantial mineral resources.

The reason I'm pulling this out of the memory hole an entire week after the fact is that I often like to mull over things for a while before I discuss them, then some article will click for me, and I find a good way to lay out my thoughts. Today's article from Der Speigel, "Are Claims of Afghan Mineral Wealth a PR Trick?" pushes me to point out the main issue that has been on my mind with respect to this news: infrastructure.

Minerals in the ground have no value if you can't get at them, concentrate them, and process them into useful forms. What does it take to accomplish those tasks?
  • Transportation infrastructure: roads & railroads;
  • Energy infrastructure: first and foremost, electrical generation and delivery systems, but also natural gas and petroleum storage and delivery systems;
  • Financial infrastructure: safe and dependable means to save and transfer money, from enormous industrial transactions, to payroll, to the individual worker's ability to buy groceries;
  • Communication infrastructure: telephones and web;
  • Manufacturing and refining infrastructure- smelters and other facilities to concentrate and process raw minerals into industrially useful materials, and industries that demand those materials, as well as the industrial base to supply basic materials like concrete and steel;
  • All five systems above require enormous capital investments, which requires a cultural respect for, and governmental enforcement of, property rights. You can think of this as cultural infrastructure; it's not a physical entity, but it is very real. People are not going to invest money in a project if they're worried it might be bombed, nationalized, or be run in such a corrupt manner that profits simply disappear. The Spiegel article mentions the difficulties surrounding simple personal safety. Incidents of murder and violence associated with mining are certainly not unknown in the US, but they're news... in Afghanistan, brutality is ho-hum, mundane. It's not an environment conducive to investment.
  • Last but not least, skilled workers- geologists, miners, managers, chemical engineers, factory laborers, on and on. It's not just a matter of pouring money into a hole and getting more money back out; a wide variety of knowledge bases, practical skills and experience is required in terms of human resources to transform worthless rock into a valuable resource.
By my count, the country has almost one of these requirement in place. And I suppose I should mention than an ongoing war is a big red flag in the eyes of potential investors.

Getting at this mineral wealth will require an enormous physical development of Afghanistan's infrastructure, and what may well be an even larger development in terms of its cultural attitudes and norms along with its education and expectations for its future. If your expectation and hope as a farmer is that your children will be able to grow poppies on the land where you're growing poppies, there is little incentive to make sure those kids get a decent high school-equivalent education, little incentive to pay taxes to support such an educational infrastructure, and little incentive to aim high and save for their college education.

A number of articles have been "cautiously" saying that developing these deposits make take "as long as" a decade. From my perspective, that's absurdly optimistic; realistically, I think we're talking at least a generation, say 25 years. Maybe two generations or more. To suppose that that sad country, beset by essentially 30 years of war, external and civil, can transform itself into a modern minerals mecca in a period of ten years is simply unrealistic.

Followup, Tues. June 22: When I started this I meant to include water management, storage and delivery as yet another aspect of infrastructure that is required to develop a modern minerals extraction effort. I also want to point to two very interesting comments from Mule Breath and Silver Fox. To see those, click on the "# people drinking coffee" button below.


Mule Breath said...

To address one of your concerns let me relate a past experience.

Several years ago I was part of a team sent to Brazil as part of the initial development of offshore petroleum exploration. Initially we sent rigs staffed with experienced expatriates. Once our systems were in place, we began hiring local, very inexperienced staff.

Now when I say inexperienced, I’m not saying the guys we hired were working in other industries and simply inexperienced with drilling. The first batch of new hires sent out were bare footed, and the first shoes they had ever owned were the steel toes we issued. They came from little farms out in the jungle where there were no modern conveniences and the only tools were rudimentary, so we had to train them from the ground up.

In just over four years those first guys had formed a cohesive crew and were training other new hires. In another ten years, some of those early trainees had ascended to the highest levels of rig management. In short, the lack of experienced workers is a hurdle that can be overcome in relatively short time.

Silver Fox said...

Currently, the cataloging and describing of ore deposits, resources, and other occurrences in Afghanistan do not constitute "discoveries" in the true sense of the word because 1) some or all the deposits were already known and 2) more work will need to be done before any of them can be mined.

Also, the work that will need to be done, will probably be done to meet Canadian NI 43-101 standards, and the dollar amount attached to the value of the resources will drop, perhaps by half or more.

An example of this is the recently announced "estimated $1 trillion in the ground" of 900 million tons of copper, whereas the company involved cites a 43-101 compliant "Resource Estimate" of 550 million tons of "indicated resources" and 274 million tons of "inferred resources" of copper.

No *resource* estimate is the same as a mineral *reserve* estimate. Like you said, other factors have to be considered before resources become reserves, including all "mining, metallurgical, economic, marketing, legal, environmental, social, and governmental factors". Consequently, in my mind, the $1 trillion announced by the U.S. or USGS for Afghanistan doesn't mean very much. It means, like you said, that the "deposits have been more carefully characterized and quantified" than had been done prior to our engagement there (unless someone in Afghanistan or some former USSR country has/had also done so).