Achieving Closure

Outback Ecology

The environmental business is a sector in fine shape right now, as one might well imagine. Outback Ecology, an Australian consultancy based in Perth, has expertise across a full spectrum of environmental, biological, aquatic, soil sciences, and mining environmental management and has become one of the leaders in the field in Western Australia, the largest specialising in and dedicated specifically to environmental sciences. The company prides itself on being able to advise on the full range of environmental issues from the very start of an early-exploration project to long-term closure and rehabilitation and is in the process of enhancing its expertise in the area of mine closure with some very special systems.

Recently, the company set up shop in Brisbane; Outback Ecology’s Chief Executive Nigel Lutton explains, “We work across the whole of Australia and have done a lot of work around the North Eastern and interior of Australia over the years, but now our permanent presence there gives us a bridgehead that allows us to grow and develop quite strongly. It is our intention for the Brisbane office not to be just a remote arm of the Perth operation but a substantial, self sustaining business in its own right.”

Outback Ecology has been operating for more than 20 years. When Nigel joined the company a little over a year ago, his brief was to assist the organisation in becoming a more mature business without losing sight of the scientific goals. Hitherto it had been run and administered by the founding scientists themselves, so did they raise any objection to being redirected into this more formally managed and commercially aware realm? Not at all, says Nigel – it was a strategic decision on their part and to a large extent removed a component of the management burden, allowing them to focus their priority on the needs of clients and to get on with the delivery of leading edge science.

Outback is typically engaged directly by the project owner. “Our most significant clients are among the largest resource companies operating in Australia – BHP, Rio Tinto, Atlas, Chevron and others – but we are constantly working with anywhere up to 60 other clients at any time and often this work commences with some of the small early-exploration companies as they establish baseline data and prepare to seek approvals and continues right through to significant production and beyond.”

So do they approach Outback Ecology because they want to (to be good corporate citizens) or because they have to (to comply with regulations)? “Good question,” says Nigel. “It’s a bit chicken-and-egg. They require our services primarily because there is a regulatory requirement that they must meet and comply with, however most of the larger and established organisations also have their own standards and codes of conduct in relation to environmental management and sustainability and many actively invest in environmental and community engagement programmes.” In most cases there is a real intention to go beyond just the environmental regulatory requirements because for most of the companies it’s about sustaining that productive business – through the mines and locations – over a very long period of time and, “They increasingly understand that if they just take the strict regulatory view they may not be able to deliver such a sustainable on-ground business value over the long term.”

Certainly there are potential conflicts of interest for the consulting company – “all the time,” says Nigel. “The end purpose of an environmental assessment or an impact study is all about balancing commercial, environmental, community and regulatory interests and we regularly find ourselves in situations where our data or findings have the potential to affect a commercial venture. [But] we don’t make the decision or judgement on those findings; we are the knowledge and science organisation that collects and delivers the relevant data and information to assist the process. I can say with comfort and confidence that although the potential for conflict exists, that we are never pressured or influenced to alter or amend our findings and that we operate to a strict code of business ethics and conduct.”

Outback Ecology does not currently do offshore marine work except in the sense of working offshore (for example with Chevron on Barrow Island), but it does have a very strong aquatic discipline offering a range of environmental services related to the ecology of plant, algal and invertebrate communities associated with inland water bodies (ephemeral and permanent), including freshwater, salt lakes and groundwater systems. The company has plans to expand its saltwater capability to meet growing demand from coastal fringe and port operation locations as well as through its recently launched Pacific Rim capability in locations such as Papua New Guinea and the Solomons, where Nigel and his team see demand for environmental and sustainability services rapidly developing.

In the same way as the company has expanded offshore in the east up towards the Pacific islands, it is also exploring markets northwards from Perth, with opportunities and projects of interest in Indonesia and Malaysia, among other southeast Asian countries. Expansion in this region “is certainly something that is of interest on our multi-year strategic plan.” In particular, Nigel says, the company’s delivery of its mine progressive rehabilitation and closure system PRAC® (please see sidebar for further details) would be a “logical spearhead for entry to many markets internationally because although the software is based on Australian (and in particular WA) regulatory mine closure requirements, it is equally relevant in terms of what it aspires to do and deliver in many other international markets.” Accordingly, Outback Ecology recently demonstrated PRAC® at an African mining exhibition, Resource Conference 2012 in Botswana (just after an official launch in Brisbane at the recent Life Of Mine conference) and is looking further into the African markets as well as Asia and other international realms.

Mine closure is “one of our strongest core disciplines and encompasses many of the Outback Ecology specialities,” and progressive mine closure is an area where Nigel feels Outback Ecology is making a serious and positive impact. PRAC® is a GIS software system that dynamically manages the life of mine obligations from approval to closure and ultimately relinquishment, including ongoing landform management and progressive rehabilitation. It enables conceptual closure planning for project approvals and regular compliance auditing that can be updated progressively during operation and utilised for daily environmental task management and information capture. The PRAC® progress review can then be linked conveniently to annual environmental reporting and annual bond review. The Outback team also advises on temporary or unforeseen closure programs, tailings decommissioning and closure, legal compliance registers, establishment and supervision of rehabilitation and closure activities, quality assurance of closure works, and success criteria establishment and auditing.

There is, of course, an ethical dimension to the various services offered by Outback Ecology. Culturally and in terms of the company’s values, “our focus is on providing the best environmental advice to industry and a diverse range of stakeholders, and we do that based on sound environmental knowledge, experience and rigorous science.” But Nigel stresses the total impartiality of the company and its scientists. “We are impartial and don’t espouse political or even personal views on the commercial nature of the work on which we are being asked to provide our environmental science services and advice.” However, he does strongly believe that if his team is doing the work, it means the resulting scientific basis for decision making will be the best that it is able to be and that ultimately all parties are better off for the quality and rigour of the input.

The recent buzz about carbon tax offset and management has been good for business, mainly because “it has stimulated and generated an imperative for the companies that will face a liability to have programmes in place to manage their carbon offset. We have been doing a lot of work in both carbon sequestration initiatives in pastoral and rangeland settings and carbon offset measurement methodology.” One recent project was the development of a Rangelands carbon offset methodology; the company also has a valuable relationship with Greening Australia which provides unique value across a range of different carbon farming and bio-diversity initiatives useful to offset liability. The process of getting such initiatives off the ground, so to speak, has been “slower than everyone expected,” due not least to the way in which the whole issue has become a political football, “but a lot of the larger companies are just getting on with the programmes to minimise their cost and mitigate their risk now and for whatever form the emissions trading market and structure will ultimately take.”

Carbon is now a tradeable commodity on international markets so a scheme of one sort or another is “here to stay, we believe – it’s here and it’s inevitable.” Nigel is confident that all the work Outback Ecology has put into its carbon offset business will not be wasted but deliver dividends – whatever the result of the next election. “A lot of this work is our core business and what we have been doing for a very long time. It’s just that it now has a different market driver and catalyst.”

Strategic Resources

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December 15, 2019, 2:53 PM AEDT

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