Mining and oil companies as mediators?
Today I attended the London annual general meeting of one of the largest global mining companies, and I am writing this en route to South America where I will spend a week with staff from another. What makes them so interesting? Obviously there is something fascinating to the non-engineer about how engineers extract minerals from the ground, often from great depth, and then retrieve the elements they want – which are invisible to me – from the ore, and then market them halfway round the world. But beyond that, miners and oil drillers occupy a truly fascinating role in society as mediators. This is because by virtue of their business niche they mediate – on behalf of the rest of us, one might say – between interests and issues which are often in tension. In this way they symbolize our wish, in modern society, to have our cake and eat it. Perhaps they are a kind of Gollum – representing our wish for wealth and power (“the ring, my precious!”) and our simultaneous moral desire to be good. No wonder they get so much stick from different quarters. I will try to explain this briefly, in terms of three of these contradictions or tensions.
1. Local vs. national
Minerals sit on or under the ground (or seabed), somewhere. That somewhere is where God, the gods, or geology put them, depending on your point of view. So they are on one very basic level, local. But in our modern era of nation-states, they tend legally to belong to the “nation”, and are thus at the disposal of the state, on the nation’s behalf. In poorly governed nations, that makes them vulnerable to being seen as the patrimony of the ruling elite, rather than the population as a whole. While in democracies they are managed as national patrimony for the benefit of the nation as a whole. But in any case, democracy or no, there will always be a tension between the needs, interests, desires and beliefs of local populations in the area where minerals lie, and those of the nation as a whole. And even more so in colonial or post-colonial situations where there is an underlying tension between indigenous people and the colonial invaders or their descendants; or in nations where one particular indigenous group, region or class holds sway over others. Most often, this tension is expressed in terms of local populations wanting to hold onto the resource (perhaps by preventing it from being mined, perhaps by wanting greater ownership and control of the resource once mined). AGMs of mining companies always provide illustrations of this, when local representatives who have purchased a single share, use this as a licence to remonstrate against the company’s destruction of their environment or its failure to mine in ways they find acceptable. So miners and other diggers and drillers (for oil, gas, geothermal power, etc.) straddle the very difficult fault line between local communities and the state, and have to mediate between the competing interests of both.
This is difficult enough in democratically mature polities like the USA and UK, but that much harder of course in countries run by relatively unrepresentative governments, where many of the most important mineral deposits occur. Miners are forced to mediate between these competing interests – all the while trying to maximise their own primary interest, getting the best return on shareholder investments now and in the future.
2. Growth now vs sustainability
Where we humans love to have our cake and eat it, is inherent in the tension between sustainability and development. Phrases like “sustainable development” trip neatly off the political tongue. But when we are honest, we know that the kind of development we can most easily envisage perforce involves economic growth, and since the days of Newton if not before, we have known that economic growth of the kind we are familiar with is inherently unsustainable. This is because it involves using up natural resources at a faster rate than they can be replaced – and in many cases using up natural resources which simply cannot be replaced.
Our improved understanding of climate change has brought this into sharper focus, just at a time when billions of humans whose parents and grandparents were largely excluded from the proceeds of fast and unsustainable growth are obtaining access to them. We are now acutely conscious that we are moving towards a cliff-edge in a headlong rush that we don’t seem to know how to stop.
Enter the mining and oil companies, whom we have charged with the task of helpfully providing many of the irreplaceable raw materials we need, to take us over the cliff: oil, gas, coal, iron, copper, potash and the like. Oh! how we want them to provide these materials as cheaply as possible – witness the current political non-debate over energy prices in the UK, or over carbon pricing in Australia; oh! how we want an above-average return on our shares; and oh! how we love to castigate the same mining and oil companies for destroying the environment and pushing us over that cliff….
So once again the very same companies find themselves caught in the midst of a schizophrenic debate between people who want to keep their cake while stuffing their faces with it, and thus mediating between our two Gollums. This is because governments and intergovernmental organisations seem incapable of doing so – not least because we don’t really want them to. This tension was illustrated at the AGM of BHP Billiton today, where a thoughtful climate activist named Ian Dunlop had put himself forward for election to the company’s Board, citing the need for a better understanding and commitment on climate change issues by directors of this huge company, whose portfolio includes energy and coking coal, oil and gas. Needless to say, he stood no chance of being adopted as a director by the company’s investors – who like most other investors have not yet really begun to factor the costs of climate change into their short-termist investment plans.
3. Resource nationalism vs market pragmatism
And then there is the fundamental tension between the desire of governments in mineral-rich countries to get the minerals to market as effectively and efficiently as possible, and their demand to have as much control and income as possible. This tension is most obvious where the minerals are technically difficult to extract – e.g. the North Sea – or in under-developed countries with inadequate skills and infrastructure which impede progress. In both cases, governments are tempted to overplay their hand – trying to extract a greater proportion of revenues than well-run companies can often stand; and sometimes good companies which would have produced a reliable flow of income from well-run mines and wells are displaced in favour of less principled operators who promise more, but end up delivering less and in ways which are more detrimental to the environment and society.
Most often though, the company and the government remain in uneasy “partnerships”, and the ineptitude of governments leaves the company in the unenviable position of having to mediate between the government’s competing desires.
There are many other tensions integral to the extractive industries which I could cite. The most obvious one perhaps is between the need for good stewardship of mineral resource and the urgent need for funds. Minerals can only be dug up once, and despite recycling, can really only be sold once by the nation which owns them.
Prudent stewards of this patrimony would husband this resource very carefully, and avoid using royalty receipts to fund recurrent expenditure. They would treat mineral revenues as scarce capital, to be invested in projects which capitalise society – infrastructure, education, governance improvements, etc. But outside Norway and perhaps Alaska, this approach is all too rare: governments find it all-too difficult to resist the temptation to use royalties as just another form of tax income, thus creating unsustainable expenditure patterns and buying favour unsustainably with the electorate – or with “clients” in a patronage-based political system. But although mining companies need to be aware of this tension, they are less likely to be in a position of straddling the fault lines and mediating between the opposing interests, as they so often are in the three examples above.
Given all the above, it is no great surprise that mining and drilling are so controversial. They encapsulate all too neatly the contradictions and opposing forces in modern society. Perhaps there will always be a Gollum, and society will always find ways to project its Gollum on someone else. Perhaps we should cut miners some slack. No, wait, perhaps we should close those evil drillers and diggers down! But more seriously, what this means in practical terms is the need for the staff of miners and drillers to be thick-skinned, but above all principled, politically savvy and – well – good at mediation, I guess.