SME President's Page

Bob Schafer

ESG, public perception and COVID-19;

Every incident has the potential to affect the entire industry

Mining starts with a tarnished image. It is unavoidable that mining and underground construction have both social and environmental impacts by the nature of their activities. A report of a misstep or accident, large or small, is sufficient to shake public confidence and motivate anti-mining nongovernment organizations to rev their propaganda machine for months. It is the way in which necessary impacts or accidents are managed that is important to restoring credibility. I hope that the industry is never willfully negligent and strives to operate within well-established environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles while emphasizing safety as part of a broader scheme of social and environmental responsibility.

The extractive industries tread a fine line between development and threat in the community and ecosystem. The media and critics commonly amplify the negatives, such as potential damage to local environmental or heritage resources, while ignoring or paying lip-service to positive contributions, such as quality employment, improved community infrastructure and the tax contributions that feed back to provide government-paid community services. Forward-thinking companies address these issues by implementing consultation and education mechanisms designed to give voice to and empower the community to influence decision-making positively and strengthen our social license to operate.

When it comes to government and regulators, most in those positions tend to seek an equitable balance to allow development of mineral resources and reaping the economic benefits while protecting the community and environment from unnecessary disruption. In the past decade or so, many companies and regulators have enacted controls to ensure that ESG goals and requirements are achieved in balance with mining activities.

In February 2020, when I became president of SME, I never dreamed that I would be sidelined and concerned about a virus that has now overtaken the mining and underground construction industries as well as global society. With this new reality comes decisions and actions that are needed to overcome the challenges of today and tomorrow. Today we are putting in place human resource and financial engineering solutions to maintain a healthy and productive workforce and safe workplace, ensuring continuity of operations and supply chains, and implementing sound cash flow management for survival. People, companies and society are enacting strategies to maintain stability today, planning for the rebound that will come with the recovery in the near term and discovering new ways to succeed by pivoting to a future that includes both opportunities and disruptions. The future developments of the mining and underground construction industries must and will have critical components of ESG in order to succeed and be accepted by society.

With the reset of the world as a result of COVID-19, our industries have an opportunity to improve upon the public’s perception of mining and more broadly achieve its social license to operate. If our businesses are more transparent and attentive to public concerns by implementing programs with strong emphases on the “E”nvironment and “S”ociety components of ESG, we can elevate our image as a valued and responsible contributor within this technologically and socially connected world.

I hope that this will be the last time that I reference anything that is related to COVID-19, pandemics and social distancing in my column. As an industry and a society, we are learning how to adapt to black swan disruptions, develop and put in place practices and technologies that allow us to remain and improve our productivity, while adjusting our practices to gain public trust and improve the perception of mining as a vital component within the overall scheme of an improved quality of living for all inhabitants of the planet and a better world.