Sustainable Mining

by William Martin, MBA'12 (9/6/11)
William Martin, MBA'12

After learning about the environmental problems in the mining industry during the SGE immersion, I was very interested to uncover the environmental solutions that Emerson Electric could provide to miners.

Extractive industries such as mining and oil & gas production are, by their very nature, inherently unsustainable since they depend on depleting finite and non-renewable natural resources.  Without these industries, however, our society would cease to exist.  So while extractive industries can never be truly sustainable, in a world with increasing population and increasing per-capita consumption of all goods, we must find ways to continue improving our global standard of living while decreasing our impact on our environment. 

Coming from a background in another extractive industry, the oil & gas industry, I was very excited to spend the summer in Emerson Electric's Corporate Sponsorship Program for MBAs, where I was tasked with analyzing the mining industry for sales opportunities and recommending a course of action for the company.  Emerson provides process automation solutions for a number of facilities like power plants, offshore oil rigs, wind and solar arrays, oil and biofuels refineries, and even beer breweries.  These automation systems allow companies to increase the energy efficiency of these industrial facilities while improving their environmental safety and reducing their environmental impact.  After learning about the environmental problems in the mining industry during the SGE immersion, I was very interested to uncover the environmental solutions that Emerson could provide to miners.

An integral part of the SGE immersion is the "sustainability bootcamp" that occurs in the first few weeks of the spring semester.  During bootcamp last spring we discussed a number of the "megatrends" that are exacerbating environmental problems worldwide: increasing population, increasing per-capita resource consumption and environmental impact, resource depletion, and global climate change.  In the mining industry these factors are coalescing to drastically increase the demand for mined resources like copper and coal while at the same time causing a myriad of supply problems for these non-renewable resources.  The higher prices resulting from these supply and demand imbalances are pushing huge amounts of capital into developing new mines.  With a "gold rush" mentality sweeping the industry, it is crucial that new mines are built and operated in an environmentally responsible manner.


My approach to the project was to reach out to as many people as I could inside and outside the company to learn about the industry, its problems, and possible solutions.  One of the advantages of being a current student is that you can send an email to almost anyone and most people will respond positively.  People are always interested in talking with students who care about sustainability.  I was able to correspond with a number of industry trade organizations and NGO environmental groups about the various environmental issues with mining.  Through these conversations I was able to compile a list of process automation solutions that Emerson could provide to miners to reduce their environmental impact while saving money and increasing personnel safety at their facilities.

One of the great things about the sustainability courses at Johnson is the breadth of ideas discussed.  Professor Stuart Hart, for example, is famous for advocating that companies embed themselves in emerging markets and work with local stakeholders to develop new products and create new local enterprise.  This "green leap" strategy, made famous by Grameenphone, can create new markets for businesses while accelerating the economic development of poor countries.  Professor Ben Ho advocates another interesting idea: companies should work with all stakeholders to steer legislation in a direction that is beneficial for both businesses and the environment.

I took the "Environmental Economics" class in the spring, where I learned a great deal about non-market analysis and influencing environmental legislation. As a result, in addition to creating a sales solution implementation strategy I was also able to recommend a strategy that involves working with various customers, trade groups, and NGOs to push for legislation that would improve the environmental practices of mines through process automation, thereby reducing the political risk to miners, providing sales opportunities to solutions providers and improving the environment for everyone.

As we move towards a world of increasing energy and mineral resource scarcity, efficiency improving technologies like those provided by Emerson Electric will allow us to continue to improve our world's standard of living while using less energy and decreasing our environmental impact.  For MBAs interested in working in the energy industry, I would highly recommend taking a look at companies that are working towards these goals.