Iron ore ‘discovery’

ON that bright sunny morning, the villagers must have been delighted at the unusual sight of a small propeller plane flying over their fields. It was the 1970s, and the OGDC’s aircraft was conducting an aeromagnetic survey over northern Punjab.

As it repeatedly flew over in a grid-like pattern, it was detecting a magnetic anomaly near Chiniot, pointing to the possible presence of iron ore beneath the surface. The aircraft returned to base, the data was logged and the matter rested.

It wasn’t until 1989 that the Geological Survey of Pakistan picked up the dusty file and carried out a geophysical survey, in which a small ore body was identified. Nevertheless, a geophysical survey is a limited study and does not confirm the resource with the degree of certitude that would motivate commercial interest. That would require more detailed investigations.

Yet another decade passed when in 1999, the Punjab Mineral Development Company commissioned an international geological firm to carry out the detailed investigations over a small area. After digging boreholes it confirmed the presence of a small deposit of iron ore.

While the size of the deposit was of little commercial value, more importantly, the investigations, using extrapolations and inferences from the collected data, pointed to the presence of much greater quantities of iron ore (in addition to other minerals) — over 500 million tons — in the wider area. However, to confirm that would require a larger, detailed investigation. At that the matter rested.

In 2009 I had accepted a position with the Punjab Board of Investment and Trade. It was apparent to me that Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif understood the subject of iron and steel well. Perhaps for that reason I picked up this initiative as my pet project.

In November 2009 I commenced a series of strategic conversations across a range of stakeholders, businessmen and technical experts in the field who were conversant with the subject. What do we do with these bits and fragments of geological information? What would it take to have this classified as a proven reserve? And afterwards who would invest in this mega mining project?

What would be the terms of the transaction? What kind of mining methodology would be required? What kind of logistic and transport infrastructure would be needed to remove earth to the depth of a 30-storey building and then haul the millions of tons of excavated ore?

How would we depopulate the hundreds of acres of farmland and villages — underneath which the ore was located? What would we do with the iron ore? Could we convert some of it to steel? If so, where would the energy come from in an already energy-starved country? Could we also sell some of the raw iron ore?

By April 2010 our rigorous consultations had led to the development of a road map that staked out a path to commercially tap these resources. The first requirement was to carry out a full-blown geological investigation that would authenticate these deposits to an acceptable international standard. And even with the chief minister applying full force, it took a slothful Punjab bureaucracy nearly half a decade to get this done.

But finally it has happened. A Chinese company has authenticated the deposit to be qualified as “reserves”. And while they are sizeable they are not very large by global standards. The entire reserve quantity is little more than what Australian mining giant BHP-Billiton would typically produce in two years.

The hard work only now begins. The ore is lodged deep under the surface. The area is well drained by the Chenab river, which may pose hydraulic challenges during excavation. The resulting mining solution could be costly.

That would make the Punjab iron ore project marginal on a world scale. Any investor will look at a range of comparable mines in the world’s ore-producing regions and compare the extraction costs per ton. And in the presently oversupplied world market many marginal mines have become dormant and are available.

Then getting the land cleared would pose a challenge for the Punjab government. The land acquisition for the Mangla reservoir expansion took years.

Structuring a mining concession, especially against the backdrop of the Reko Diq fiasco, will pose another challenge.

If the project envisages steel production on site then the government will have to think about ways to provide energy — either coking coal or gas.

Finally, to move ore (and even steel) through overland transport to our steel mills and ports requires a modern, heavy haul rail system.

We will turn to ways of addressing these challenges at a later time.

2015 – Dawn Media Group