Bernardo M. Villegas
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published: Sep 27, 2019






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Nickel Mining Can Be Sustainable (Part 1)

          It would not be an overstatement to say that the Philippine mining industry has gone through a self-inflicted environmental and political crisis over the last two or three years.  The environmental crisis can be attributed to real damage caused to the Philippine environment by some mining firms that resulted in either suspension or closure of mining operations.  The political crisis resulted from decisions made during the early years of the Duterte Administration that exaggerated these violations of rules of sustainable development to the complete disregard of the many positive contributions of the mining industry to income growth, poverty eradication and employment generation.  Politics is the art of the possible.  It always involves balancing different societal objectives.  Some of those who formulated mining policies at the beginning of the present Administration were not able to do the necessary balancing act among conflicting objectives.  They gave short shrift to the economic benefits of the mining industry.

         The Center for Social Responsibility of the University of Asia and the Pacific (UA&P), led by Dr. Colin Hubo, is doing its best to help both public officials and private investors attain the appropriate balance among the objectives of income growth, foreign exchange earnings, employment generation, poverty alleviation and environmental protection.  This is especially important in the nickel industry because the Philippines has become the world’s second-largest supplier of nickel ore which has surpassed the production of the former top contributors such as gold, silver and copper.  In 2016 and 2017, the country exported 577,000 metric tons of nickel.   In 2017, nickel ore exports totaled 230,000 metric tons—a third less than the 2016 figure—but still raked in $455.21 million (P224.533 billion) for the country.  In fact, the Philippines has been the world’s top nickel producer in decades past, but the shifting local political landscape combined with real environmental concerns forced it to lose ground to Indonesia.

         Indonesia has capitalized on our country’s uncertain situation as regards mining policies and kicked its production into high gear to feed the mineral-hungry economy of China. It has to be pointed out that as emerging markets like China, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries in the ASEAN grow at an average of 6 or more per cent in GDP in the next decades or so, there will be an explosion in demand for the first applications of nickel, such as stainless steel, non-ferrous alloys, alloy steels and castings, plating, and batteries.  Rapid industrialization and urbanization in the Asia Pacific region will see an increasing use of nickel-based products in Architecture, building and construction; process engineering, oil, gas, and power; food contact materials; pulp and paper; transport; healthcare; consumer products and water. Nickel is used in myriad products, especially in the ongoing fourth industrial revolution, because of the following qualities:  high-melting point; resistance to corrosion and oxidation; highly ductile; alloys readily and can be fully recycled.  The last quality gives nickel very high points in sustainability.

         Researchers at the Center for Social Responsibility of UA&P has identified the following multiple challenges facing Philippine nickel miners in the coming years:

         a)  First, what was once one of the most liberal mining regimes in Southeast Asia is now subject to a government crackdown that shows no sign of relenting, even with significant changes in leadership.  As noted by Amanda Key in an article for Investingnews.com, “For now, one thing is certain:  the direction the Philippines goes with its mining policy moving forward will impact the global nickel market.” 

         b)  The second challenge is to produce the right type of nickel ore that end-users, such as Chinese companies, will use to produce anything from stainless steel to batteries to electric vehicles.  A recent Standard and Poor’s analysis of the global nickel market indicates that most nickel producers started their operations geared toward producing nickel sulphide ores.  When these ores became scarce, the market gravitated toward laterite ores that are costlier to extract.

         c) Finally, local nickel miners have to decide what grade of ore to produce that would make the most profit, given the generally falling prices for the metal in the world market.  Mining firms are slowly shifting to shipping medium-grade ores amid declining prices of the usual low-grade nickel ores—ninety percent of which goes to China from the Philippines. Dante Bravo, President of the Philippine Nickel Industry Association (PNIA), remarked in a recent forum: “For the long term, this would mean that some mines might slow down in their production in the coming years depending on the area being mined.  The shift would have to make adjustments depending on mineralization.”  Despite some of these uncertainties, there is still a mood of optimism among the nickel miners because of the many uses of nickel in such sunrise industries as electronic vehicles, construction, consumer goods, health care and housing.  (To be continued)