In the shadow of the “supercycle”, and propelled by its dysfunctional economic dynamics, risk and public liability from mine tailings storage facility (TSF) failures have reached all-time highs. The annual failure rate for significant TSF events has escalated from a 50-year average of 0.56 “Very Serious“ TSF failures per year (33/50) to 1.0 (10/10) for the period of price run up 2000-2010 as described by the HHWI (Rossen, Anja 2015), a 78% increase. In this period, copper prices steadily climbed reaching an all-time post war3 high of $9411 per ton ($2015) in 2011 as compared to the prior 50 year average price of $5133. These facts challenge the widely held notion that failures are mainly shaped by falling prices. They point to more fundamental and still not fully examined or understood root causes of TSF failures.
What is apparent in the forensic record is that the increasing severity and frequency of high consequence failures reflects in part an aging infrastructure at depleted mines which are no longer economically viable even at record high prices. There are also indications that many were never viable and were just abetted into existence through venture capital on loosely regulated exchanges or advanced on faulty feasibility studies.
What seems apparent and even widely understood within the industry, though not yet widely acknowledged, is that we have reached the outer limit of the mining industry’s long standing metric that ever lower grades of ores can be mined through “economies of scale”. A close examination of the data seems to show that the “mining metric” stopped working sometime in the mid 90’s. It is from this turning point in the efficacy of the mining metric that conditions which evolve to catastrophic failure began forming, incubating and progressing. During the supercycle as prices climbed to all-time post war highs, grades, even at major producing large mines, dropped to all-time lows. Meanwhile mines still premised on this economies of scale model continue to be put forward with unverifiable claims of economic viability, or with a reasonable expectation of full compliance with external environmental and other community protective standards.
The data increasingly dictate that we need a completely new approach to navigate this new era of mining. We need action to identify and correct already accrued public liability the end of this era has left behind in standing operating TSFs. This can only be accomplished through the application of comprehensive law and policy addressed to these two imperatives. The fragmented legal frameworks for mining in most prevalent use today globally have conclusively demonstrated their failure to adequately protect the public interest. Post Mt. Polley, and now post Fundão, none of the much publicized government and industry studies and reforms announced address the key root causes of high severity high consequence tailings failures or commit to any changes in law and policy that will be effective in preventing the man made losses in existing, not yet closed marginal mines.
This is the introduction for our soon to be released new research on how the longest and biggest price rise in recorded history created the biggest elevation ever in portfolio risk , not just on the public liability side as measured in trends of TSF failures but on the investment side as well.
Here are a few of the highlights of the dysfunctional and damaging economics of the supercycle.
The Co-Entanglement of Supercycle Economics & TSF Failures
It is irrefutable that the frequency and consequence of Very Serious Failures and of “Serious” Failures is continuing to increase at alarming rates, that the trend emerged and grew post 1990 and that it is in large part a consequence of conscious decisions made at the mine-level to make up for fundamental mine and miner specific economic disadvantages viz global economics. Short cuts on waste management, especially of tailings management, were and are a fast, easy, under the radar way to try to meet the high production volumes and low cash costs investors insist on (Bowker & Chambers 2015, Bowker & Chambers 2016).
The dysfunctional, reactive economics of the supercycle are expertly analyzed and well characterized by Deloitte in their 2014 market trend analysis. “In their relentless pursuit of growth in response to pressure from investors and analysts, companies developed massive project pipelines. Some also developed marginal mines, hoping commodity prices would buoy poor project economics. In their headlong pursuit of volume, many mining companies abandoned their focus on business fundamentals. They compromised capital allocation decision making in the belief that strong commodity prices would compensate for weak business practices. Rather than maintaining a long-term view of the market, many acted opportunistically.”(Deloitte 2014).
Price Waterhouse Coopers, looking at the performance of the top 40 over the supercycle, note that much of the massive commitment of capital to expansion and production at any cost ended up as impairment write offs: “… from 2010-2015, the top 40 have impaired the equivalent of a staggering 32% of the capex incurred”. They note that $36 billion, or 68 % of the total impairments, were taken by Glencore, Freeport Vale and Anglo American and that “2015 saw the first widescale mothballing of marginal projects”. The top 40 took a collective net loss of $27 billion and investors punished them for “squandering the benefits of boom” and for “poor capital management and investment decisions“. (PWC 2016).
It is in this dysfunctional “maximum production at any cost” dynamic of the supercycle that we see a dramatic upturn in the frequency and severity of failures, and in which there is with very little doubt a higher global portfolio risk of accrued and unexamined public liability. Changes in waste rock to metals ratios for gold suggest the possibility of a more than 100% increase in the level of potential unexamined risk (SRS Rocco 2016).
 Supercycle refers to a multi-year period of sustained price increases in commodities and raw materials.
 We define “Very Serious” TSF failures as those involving a release of 1 million cubic meters or more
3 The all-time annual average high since 1896 was 1916 at $13,572 ($2015) followed by 1917 at $11,876
 The “mining metric” is higher mine production necessitated by lower grades of ore, a century of declining prices offset by declining costs per ton. The metric is to continuously develop the resource through economies of scale, larger and deeper footprints, more efficient operations, bigger and better bulk mining technology.
 We define “Serious” TSF failures as those with a release of greater than 100,000 m3, but less than 1 million m3.