Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Prospecting for Gold

Back in the 1930s, when gold was $36 an ounce, many people found it worthwhile to head for mountain streams with a shovel and a pan. It was harder physical work than some of the amateurs expected, and the icy water from melting snow was hard on those with arthritis, but if you were lucky, you could eke out a living. Nowadays, silver is worth $36, and as I write this, gold is getting $1,548 per ounce. What makes gold so valuable?
Well, inflation accounts for some of the price rise of course, but basically, people want it, and are willing to pay that high price. Can you eat it? No. Will it keep you warm? Nope; won't burn; and a blanket of it would be way too hard and heavy. But it has several other features that are unequalled by almost any other substance.
First, it is beautiful, not only as a symbol of wealth, but in itself. About half of new gold production is used in jewelry, especially in Asia. Second, gold is dependable. Even when inflation lowers the value of paper money, gold is usually accepted in exchange for goods. About one sixth of gold production is stored in government vaults like Fort Knox ,or the Federal Reserve in Manhattan, which also holds funds in trust for other nations. Another sixth of the annual gold production is held by private investors. Thirdly, gold has industrial uses. Silver and copper are better electric conductors than gold, but they tarnish..Gold never tarnishes or corrodes. Plating switch contacts in computers and other electronic devices with a very thin layer of gold prolongs the life of the device.
For all these reasons, gold continues to be in demand. Most gold nowadays is produced, not by lonely prospectors with gold pan and pick, but by international corporations employing thousands of men and women. As recently as five years ago South Africa was the world leader in gold production, but its gold mostly lies two to four kilometers below the surface, and is therefore expensive to mine. Recently China took first place with 320,000 kilograms mined in 2009. Australia, South Africa, United States, and Russia were all nearly tied for second place with a little over 200,000 kg apiece. Most of USA's gold nowadays comes not from California or Colorado, but from Nevada, with Alaska next.
Papua New Guinea is rising through the ranks of gold producers, being number12 in 2009, but may soon be number 6 if some of its new projects are successful. A Canadian company working in PNG is pioneering the first deep water gold mine, Solwara 1. There, a mile below the ocean surface, the top of an undersea mountain is covered by a hundred-feet-thick layer of copper and gold-bearing silt deposited from a natural hot water vent spewing a black plume of mineral matter. (think of it as a baby volcano.) Nautilus Minerals Corporation believes it can pump this sediment up through a pipe, dry it aboard ship and haul it by the barge-load to the town of Rabaul, 70 kilometers away for further refining. And a former Nautilus executive is now leading a similar project deep in the Red Sea off Saudi Arabia.
Pumping sediment or gravel off the ocean floor appears to be much less polluting than on-shore mining. Any initial residue can be laid down on the ocean floor again No blasting is involved, no sludging of rivers and flooding of rice fields. Presumably little or no toxic waste deposited at the site (though it will ultimately have to go somewhere.)
But there must be precautions taken. There are hundreds of such sea vents in the dark deeps, home to strange life forms which don't depend on sunlight or chlorophyll, but live on the sulfides and other minerals from the vent. No one has thoroughly studied these plants and creatures yet; no one knows what medicines or other products they might produce. We must not carelessly damage their environment, even if it can be shown that they can migrate on deep ocean currents to other hot, nourishing sea vents hundreds of miles away.
Nor should we endanger fish and other dwellers nearer the surface by polluting rivers with sludge, cyanide, mercury, acids and other toxic products used to refine gold and other minerals we extract. A great many people's jobs and income depend on wildlife, forests, and tourist industries. Jobs and income from mines and and oil wells are also important, but must be balanced against those from co-existing industries.
As an example, a huge deposit of copper and gold in Alaska lies at the root of the Aleutian Peninsula, near the shores of Iliamna Lake and the rivers that drain into the Pacific Ocean's Bristol Bay, the center of Alaska's salmon fishing industry. Two mining corporations, Rio Tinto and Anglo-American, are proposing a 2 mile-wide, 2000 feet deep open pit mine, with 80-foot high dams to contain waste products. They have not reassured anyone about plans to use cyanide or other toxins in the refining process; they reportedly only say they are "considering" the matter.
When genuine and legitimate conflict arises among two industries like mining and fishing, the average wage earner can't compete with the resources behind the big company executives and lawyers. The only ones with clout enough to assure that proper precautions are taken are government watchdogs. I will have to amit I don't really like the arrogance (and sometimes incompetence) of some bureaucrats, but neither do I like the arrogance and greed of some big businesses.
I practiced medicine for thirty-five years in Idaho's "Silver Valley" mining towns. Some mine accidents are inevitable, but others are preventable. In 1972, ninety-one miners died of monoxide poisoning in an underground mine fire for which management was unprepared. No one thought it could happen. A few years later, the filter system in the lead smelter was accidentally destroyed. It could have been repaired by shutting down the smelter for a few days, but management decided (deliberately, the jury found) to ignore the danger to the surrounding towns and run operations without filtering the lead from the smokestack. The lawsuits over the next few decades have cost management over one billion dollars. Corporate CEOs sometimes make huge errors, that cannot later be corrected. That is why public authorities must sometimes step in and say. "Thoroughly study the effect on the environment and local economy first." There are other values besides gold.