The Dubbo Project in New South Wales’ central west has been on a 20-year mission to dig up critical minerals and it’s finally inching closer to being able to mine them.
The Dubbo Project is now looking to finance its construction stage
It received all necessary state and government approvals six years ago
Critics says the federal government has been too slow to recognise the strategic importance of critical minerals
The Dubbo Project is looking to mine a number of rare earth metals and critical minerals like zirconium, hafnium, titanium and neodymium, the products of which can be used in a number of industries, including clean energy, aerospace and some military technologies.
Gill Savage, senior fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says this makes the sector relevant to Australia’s sovereignty.
“We know that from a defence perspective, high-tech air power is dependent on critical minerals and rare earth elements,” Ms Savage said.
But, she says, Australia has been too slow on the uptake, and needs to move towards prioritising its own national interests, especially since the pandemic has exposed a number of supply chain issues.
“Prior to COVID, we had this complete trust in globalisation and just-in-time manufacturing and delivery,” Ms Savage said.
“But, just recently we had shortage issues with a urea fertiliser and AdBlue [an additive for diesel engines], so we’ve had a lot of experiences that say we’ve been over-reliant on others.”
Governments ‘asleep at the wheel’
The federal government has outlined the importance of moving up the critical minerals value chain.
The clamour for Western nations to diversify away from dependence on Chinese markets and products has grown in recent years, with the federal government releasing an update to its Critical Minerals Strategy in March to do exactly that.
But Ms Savage says the fact that it has taken more than 20 years for the Dubbo Project to get going is a potential indication that successive governments have been asleep at the wheel for too long.
The owner of the Dubbo Project, Australian Strategic Materials (ASM), says once mining starts — probably in 2025-26 — its mined material is slated to go overseas to the South Korean market.
ASM general manager David Woodall says Korea is an automotive manufacturing powerhouse that is moving towards electric vehicles, while the demand for critical minerals in Australia is still relatively small.
Ms Savage says it is this lack of local demand that needs to be rectified by the federal government in the national interest.
But while the critical minerals push is happening across the Western world, there remain local concerns.
Does extreme weather pose a risk?
The Dubbo Project has a tentative timeline with construction expected to begin next year.
Central West Environment Council spokesperson Bev Smiles says it has been six years since the project received its approvals, yet it only presented a modification report, to get additional approval for changes to its water requirements, last month.
“This, to me, is the project trying to protect itself more from dry conditions given the recent drought,” Ms Smiles said.
“But, there’s also the issue of extreme wet conditions as we’ve seen recently with the rains, and how that might impact all these buried residues.”
Ms Smiles says radioactive uranium that is dug up and reburied, as well as large amounts of salt that will be trucked in for chemical processing, could be at risk of contaminating Dubbo’s water.
In response, ASM said the mine followed the world’s best practice in design and engineering when it came to storing waste materials.
It said the containment mechanism used to store the waste products was in line with government regulations and designed to withstand a once-in-10,000-year flood.