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Gruyere the big cheese as analysts warn of Australia's lack of new gold discoveries - ABC News

Monday, 1 July 2019

Australia's biggest new gold mine — named after a hard yellow Swiss cheese — has poured its first gold bar as the precious metal continues to trade near record highs.

But amid a modern-day gold rush, there are concerns the industry will struggle to sustain current levels of production with mining leaders and analysts pointing to a lack of major new discoveries.

The $621 million Gruyere mine, 200 kilometres north-east of Laverton in WA's Great Victoria Desert, was Australia's last major discovery in October 2013.

It typically takes a decade to transition projects of similar scale from discovery to production, but Gruyere poured its first gold over the weekend to achieve the milestone in less than six years.

By comparison, Queensland's controversial Adani coal mine took nine years to receive environmental approval.

Before Gruyere, the $845 million Tropicana mine was Australia's last notable discovery in 2005 and took more than eight years to pour first gold in September 2013.

Tropicana is about 100 kilometres south of Gruyere and both mines are in new mineral fields, north-east of WA's historic gold mining centre of Kalgoorlie-Boulder, where gold was previously not considered a likely prospect.

Gruyere — owned on a 50:50 basis by Australian company Gold Road Resources and South African mining giant Gold Fields — is expected to operate for at least the next 12 years and create about 350 full-time jobs.

Mine boss say price is right to explore

Gold Road managing director Duncan Gibbs, who was general manager of Tropicana during construction and during its first few years of production, said the discoveries show there were still rich deposits to be found.

With the gold price ''going gangbusters'', he said now is the time to inject capital into exploration to underpin the next decade of mining.

Mr Gibbs said Gold Road was spending about $20 million on exploration this year.

''The Yamarna belt where Gruyere was found is a poorly explored greenstone area, and we're doing a lot of the first work over that,'' Mr Gibbs said.

''It wasn't really recognised until the 1970s and early 80s.

''It was a bit further away from the pubs of Kalgoorlie, so the old timers didn't really get out there.

''There's a lot of sand cover which has really inhibited a lot of modern exploration, so we'd like to think we can find some new discoveries and we're working hard at that.''

The first gold pour at Gruyere comprised three bars containing an estimated 1,139 ounces — worth about $2.2 million at today's gold price.

Mr Gibbs said production would be ramped up over coming months to its targeted rate of about 300,000 ounces a year.

The commissioning phase for Gruyere could not have been better timed, with gold prices breaking through the $2,000 an ounce barrier for the first time in June.

Despite gold's highs riding a wave of global uncertainty, Mr Gibbs said there was a lack of appetite for risk among investors and mineral exploration inherently carries risk.

''The observations I would make is there's a lot of near-mine exploration happening, and all the major gold players are doing that, but there has been a dearth of true greenfields exploration looking for new mines that actually lead to new mine developments, such as Gruyere,'' he said.

''The junior explorers have been struggling to raise significant capital and a lot of the major gold companies have really focussed their exploration in recent years on sustaining existing operations, rather than finding new ones.''

One of the few exceptions is Breaker Resources with its Bombora greenfields discovery, 100 kilometres east of Kalgoorlie-Boulder, but even the most optimistic investor would admit mining was still years away.

The Perth-based company raised $6.3 million in May to continue drilling out the 6-kilometre-long gold system it stumbled on in August 2015 at Lake Roe and where it has since defined more than 1.1 million ounces.

Analysts tip big fall in Australian gold production

In April, mining industry figures scoffed at a Canadian mining analyst who told the ABC Australia's gold mining industry is on the edge of a production cliff.

But now Melbourne-based analyst Jason Aravanis, of IBISWorld, has added his voice to those warning about a looming fall in production.

He said Australia was on track to produce a record 350 tonnes of gold in 2020.

But production is expected to fall about 7 per cent annually until it hits about 250 tonnes in 2024.

By that stage, Mr Aravanis said Australia will have slipped from second, behind only China, to fourth on a list of the world's biggest gold producing nations.

''The gold mining industry just hasn't really put in the funds, the expenditure to discover new gold assets,'' he said.

''What's been happening is these miners have instead focused on brownfield exploration, where they're looking near existing mines and they're not looking in new areas to find these new mega discoveries.''

Mr Aravanis pointed to the Agnew, Garden Well and Jundee gold mines in WA as major operations likely to close in the next five years.

''The fleet of gold mines that we currently have is getting older and older, and more expensive to operate,'' he said.

''Even though there might be plenty of gold still in them, the deeper you go underground the more expensive it gets to withdraw that gold, and eventually you reach a point where it's no longer worth your trouble.''

Down Under has some of world's biggest gold mines

New figures, released today by the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, forecast Australia's gold exports to peak at more than $22 billion in the 2020-21 financial year.

The report by the Office of the Chief Economist said Australia's position as the world's second-largest gold producer is expected to be challenged by Russia, as ''some mature gold mines in WA come to their end of life''.

The Australian gold industry comprises 71 operating mines, with WA accounting for 68 per cent, or 218 tonnes, of total production in the 2018-19 financial year.

New South Wales accounted for 13 per cent, or 42 tonnes, of Australia's total gold output.

The report also noted Australia has five of the world's 20 largest gold mines.

The Cadia Hill mine in NSW (10th position), Boddington in WA's South-West (11th), Kalgoorlie-Boulder's Super Pit (14th), Tanami in the Northern Territory (19th) and Tropicana (20th) collectively account for 2.8 per cent, or 95 tonnes, of global gold production.

While announcing record resource and energy export earnings of $275 billion for the 2018-19 financial year, Resources Minister Matt Canavan today described red tape as the ''greatest threat'' to the mining industry.

''While commodity prices are high, as they are at the moment, these high prices won't last,'' Mr Canavan said.

''The way for governments to respond is to reduce the unnecessary barriers to investment in Australia's resources industry.''

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