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Gold Mining in China

Why China has not exploited its Gold Mining potential...

EVEN THOUGH China is investing billions to locate new mineral deposits around the world, geologist Noel White believes there are huge discoveries yet to be unearthed within its borders. 

In this interview with The Gold Report, Noel White, an independent geological consultant with Enargite in Brisbane, Australia, says China's history and politics have slowed development of its mining at home.

The Gold Report: Noel, you're a geologist with about a 40 year history in mineral exploration. These days, public companies pay you for advice on how to run their exploration programs. What are some common mistakes junior mining companies make when it comes to exploration?

Noel White: Junior companies have difficulty developing a clear and realistic strategy. 

TGR: You try to temper their enthusiasm?

Noel White: Not at all. In fact, I try to encourage their enthusiasm. But I try to get what they do aligned with what their objectives are in a realistic way.

TGR: Do they try to drill too quickly? Do they try to drill too much? 

Noel White: Junior companies commonly feel that there is an expectation to drill quickly, but they also need to do their homework properly. If they jump into drilling before doing the appropriate surface techniques, such as geological mapping, geochemical sampling and geophysical surveys, they can completely waste the very expensive drilling work. 

It is a serious mistake because bad drilling results have a serious negative impact on how investors perceive a project. A company needs the best possible intersections at the start to raise the value of their projects. 

TGR: You often deal with technologies that are new to mineral exploration. Can you talk about how they're changing the game?

Noel White: The fundamentals of mining haven't changed particularly in 40 years—we just use new technologies to achieve the same goals. The major breakthrough in geophysical technology of recent times was the development of airborne gravity. That was one of the Holy Grails. 

One of the most basic tools is a magnetic survey. We can get a lot more out of magnetic surveys today than we could in the past. Those surveys provide us with baseline information that's really important. 

Technology is producing major breakthroughs in geochemistry. Geochemistry started off just collecting samples of soil or stream sediments and using simple analytical techniques. More and more sensitive analytical methods have been developed. Partial leach techniques extract part of the geochemical sample to maximize the sensitivity. 

A major recent development relies on the fact that nature has focused particular elements that are associated with ore deposits into particular minerals. It is now possible to actually look at the chemistry of particular minerals to evaluate the proximity to the target based on its chemistry. 

TGR: What do all those technologies mean to the investor?

Noel White: Smart people follow the lead of smart people and greedy people follow the lead of greedy people. If you follow a greedy person you might get lucky and make a lot of money in the short term. Technically smart people who design exploration programs have a much higher probability of being successful in delivering a discovery.

TGR: A few years ago, the World Bank evaluated the mineral potential of China. How would you characterize China's mineral potential?

Noel White: To appreciate China's potential, you have to understand its history. In the early days of the People's Republic of China, the country followed the Soviet Union approach and started huge state-funded surveys over massive areas, but the Cultural Revolution disrupted the process. 

Thousands of state-owned companies with exploration teams suddenly found themselves with no funding. However, the government wouldn't allow them to reduce staff or stop operations—a major dilemma for management. They started mining any little thing to make money.

TGR: The country is literally dotted with all kinds of artisanal mines.

Noel White: They were so focused on making money that they were acting as if they were the smallest of junior mining companies where making money was the sole focus, not doing good work. 

TGR: But the potential is there.

Noel White: Oh, the potential is staggering. A mineral occurrence map of East Asia shows multiple world-class deposits around the borders of China. However, there are very few inside China. Why did China miss out? It has nothing to do with geology. I has to do with the history of the country and how exploration developed. China is fantastically endowed, but very poorly explored. 

TGR: But even the Chinese government is not compelled by its geology. Chinese state-owned companies are spending billions to develop resources beyond its borders. Isn't it difficult to argue for further mineral exploration and development in China when the Chinese themselves seem unconvinced?

Noel White: A huge amount of money is being channeled by the government into exploration teams in China. Some of them are quite competent, but many of them are not. It's basically pouring good money out after mostly bad. 

Then the government asks, "Well, why haven't we found all these deposits in China?" But the "experts" they are asking don't know anything about the economic geology of China. They say, "We've spent a huge amount of money looking for these deposits and haven't found them. Therefore, they mustn't be there." That conclusion is wrong. Most of the money is being used in completely ineffective ways. 

TGR: What is the environment for juniors wanting to capitalize on that potential?

Noel White: The geological potential of China is fantastic. But let's not pretend otherwise—it's a difficult place to work for other reasons. Ten years ago, China was encouraging foreign companies to come in. A lot of juniors went into China. Some did quite well. Many of them did really badly. Subsequently, conditions have become less and less favorable. The policies change almost on a yearly basis. It's more challenging today than it was 10 years ago.

TGR: What's the best way to get started in China?

Noel White: The best way to work in China is to joint venture with a good state-owned company. Mining law in China is provincial. Having a Chinese partner that can handle government and community relations for you is a major advantage. Many foreign companies don't understand the system, the requirements—they don't have the connections and the relationships that can make things easier. Life is much easier when you have a good local partner.

TGR: Oyu Tolgoi is the mammoth copper-gold porphyry deposit being developed in Mongolia.You're an expert in porphyry deposits. Do you believe further exploration of those geological systems could yield a similar deposit in China? 

Noel White: There are a lot of porphyry prospects in China, but there's been very little effective exploration on them. The situation is changing because more Chinese have familiarity with porphyry deposits. However, in most cases, if they even recognize a porphyry, they will drill a couple of holes and walk away because they didn't get what they wanted. 

Porphyry deposits are very big, but that doesn't mean they're easy to find. They can't just drill a couple of holes and say, "Oh well, we've done it." In fact, one company is exploring a porphyry system that had never been recognized in southeastern China, down toward the Vietnam border.

TGR: Is that Habo?

Noel White: Yes. The potential remains in that area. But why wasn't it found before? There were about 10 centimeters of forest soil and dead leaves hiding it. Until the surface was scraped away, it couldn't be seen. It's not that geologists hadn't looked in that area, they just hadn't seen it. That's true all around the world. It takes very little to hide something. 

China has great potential for more porphyry systems. In fact, there have been a lot of porphyry systems found in Tibet because it's a well-exposed area and a well-defined belt. There is a need for people to get back into eastern China where there are numerous known porphyry systems that have never been explored properly.

TGR: Do you think that Habo will ever get to the point where it is a major porphyry system that is mined and is economic?

Noel White: It's at an important stage now. The work that is being done right now will make or break Habo. So far, no sufficiently wide zones of high-grade mineralization have been found. Many narrow zones have been found, but that doesn't make a porphyry deposit because large volumes are needed to bulk mine.

It's still an open question. We still don't know the answer. We're drilling targets that have the potential to be an economic ore body. Time will tell.

TGR: Is the work being done on Habo changing the way Chinese geologists think about geology in China? 

Noel White: The Chinese system is very stratified. The people in the field often don't know what's happening just down the road, let alone in another province. That knowledge would not be widespread. 

TGR: You've also acted as a consultant on the Beiya project, which is in northern Yunnan Province. What's exciting about that project?

Noel White: We discovered an ore body at Beiya. It's taken quite a period to achieve that success largely because of the character of the geology. The potential was very clear from the earlier stages. There was a known deposit, which has grown and grown to be the biggest gold mine in Yunnan.

Production at the moment is about 200,000 ounces per year from an open pit, but it was a very small underground mine when we started. 

The mine was controlled by a state-owned company, now partly privatized. The state-owned company was so focused on drilling and testing that deposit that it wasn't interested in the surrounding ground. 

TGR: You have talked about the mineral potential of Ollachea in Peru and Don Nicolas in Argentina as being significantly greater than what's being looked at currently. What supports that view?

Noel White: Ollachea has mineralization exposed in a belt of small workings. The deposit has a fairly shallow dip of about 30 degrees in very dissected country. Very often those sorts of deposits are steeply dipping, which limits the depth at which you can explore them. Here, the host structure extends a long way away from where it's currently being drilled. 

The amount of blue sky attached to that deposit is startling. There's plenty more potential. It's the tip of the iceberg. Nobody knows how much more there is, but definitely one of the things you want with any project, apart from having a good resource, is the potential to grow. There's extraordinarily good potential to grow there. 

TGR: Is there significant potential in the Don Nicolas deposit as well?

Noel White: I didn't review Don Nicolas itself. I was supposed to look a lot more closely at that on my last visit, but a little heart attack got in the way.

TGR: Oh, my goodness!

Noel White: That cut the visit short. However, Don Nicolas is one of many exploration targets within that region. I was startled, to be honest. It's quite an amazing region. There's a whole series of other deposits that are known. For a geologist in exploration, it's the sort of thing that makes your heart beat faster.

TGR: You spoke earlier about how mining rules vary among Chinese provinces. It's much the same in the different provinces of Argentina. Are the particular provinces in the Don Nicolas region considered mining-friendly jurisdictions?

Noel White: Yes, very much so. It's the best in Argentina. To be honest, there's not a lot more going for this province apart from mining. It's mostly flat. It's arid. It's quite a difficult environment for any other sources of income. The people there recognize that the best opportunity they have to develop is through the mining industry. Consequently, they're very positive about it. They want to see the mining industry grow.

TGR: There is an economic malaise in this particular sector, but projects are still being found and developed despite lagging share prices. Some of them even look robust. Is that enough to keep investors hopeful about this sector?

Noel White: Investors are holding onto their money and not investing in anything that's perceived to have risk. But there still are investors who have a taste for something with big upside potential. Now is the time to be investing in the very good exploration companies—the ones that have very good projects and very good management. Investors get in cheaply and the upside is fantastic. There's every reason to be optimistic about the mining industry and exploration. Exploration is the future of mining and mining is essential to civilization.

TGR: Do you have any other thoughts you want to share with us?

Noel White: There will be discoveries that generate interest. In exploration, we benefit greatly from the power of greed because the discovery that excites the market generates a lot more exploration activity. I remember during my BHP Minerals days the young geologists would say, "Isn't it a pity that we didn't find that deposit?" I'd say, "Don't knock it because we benefit from the fact someone else found a deposit that's got the market excited." It benefits everyone's budget. 

TGR: Indeed.

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