Can De Beers really achieve carbon-neutral diamond mining?

Carbon-neutral diamond mining
[Image Courtesy: The New York Times]

Diamond mining major De Beers, part of Anglo American group, recently said that it could make some of its diamond mines carbon-neutral as quickly as in five years and aims to transform diamond mining sector sustainable. However, given its past history regarding environmental issues, its media campaign on the topic may be just tall claims and its ‘plans’ of carbon-neutral diamond mining highly questionable.


De Beers’ carbon-neutral diamond mining plan

Scientists from De Beers have recently announced their collaborative work, with team of internationally renowned scientist, which would slash the carbon emissions during diamond mining by up to 10 times that of a typical mine. Researchers are considering ways of storing large volumes of carbon through the mineralisation of kimberlite “tailings” – the material that is left out after diamond extraction.

Mineralisation or mineral carbonation of kimberlite is a process in which large volumes of carbon dioxide released during diamond mining is artificially stored / locked in kimberlite tailings. This locking of carbon dioxide is in a safe, nontoxic and carbonated material form, which can stay locked for millions of years.

De Beers’ project lead for the initiative Dr Evelyn Mervine quoted “ This project offers significant potential to completely offset the carbon emissions of De Beers’ diamond mining operations. Mineral carbonation technologies are not new, but what is new is the application of these technologies to kimberlite ore, which is found in abundance in the tailings at diamond sites, and which offer ideal properties for the storage of very large volumes of carbon”.

Mineral Carbonation Video


De Beers’ environmental history

Indeed, all this sounds so convincing but facts depict entirely different story.

Victor diamond mine

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s Wildlands League has taken the diamond industry giant to court. De Beers Canada Inc failed to report the mercury and methylmercury levels at the Victor diamond site in northern Ontario. 

“The reason why we are doing it is a violation of the condition of the permit that De Beers has. You must meet the conditions of your permit. It is not that they just missed one station over one month or a few months or even a year. They missed it over seven years, in five stations out of nine. So it is quite significant,” said Anna Baggioconservation director at Wildlands League.

The report created by Wildlands League alleges that De Beers has been failing to report mercury levels for the creeks near to its Victor Mine, from 2009 to 2016, for 5 out of 9 surface water monitoring stations. The process of diamond mining stimulates the conversion of mercury present in the ecosystem into methylmercury, which then enters the food chain. An undisposed chemical, Methylmercury, released during diamond mining is a neurotoxin which can pose threat to humans and aquatic species.


Snap Lake diamond mine

Also, last year itself, environmental issues at De Beers’ Snap Lake Diamond mine were raised where non-compliance of license due to excessive discharge of chloride content into lake was observed and protested by Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board. Sought-after changes in the water license were also opposed by N.W.T’s aboriginal groups. Eventually, De Beers had to close its Snap Lake diamond mine.


Diamond miners including De Beers hardly conform to Sustainability standards

When it comes to environment protection diamond mining companies are laggards, unlike their peers in gold or other metal mining. Hardly any diamond mining companies are listed in Dow Jones Sustainability Indices. Also, search of the sustainability reporting for Mining sector in Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) – a framework of organization from all over the world that reports their economic, environmental and social sustainability in a comprehensive manner, reveals that among the diamond mining industry, only a handful of miners including Alrosa, De Beers, Gem Diamonds, Lucara Diamond Corp., Petra Diamonds and Rio Tinto published their Sustainability Report for 2015 on GRI. But again these report are superficial group-wide common report and does not provide any mine-wise data or information, except Lucara Diamond Corp., Petra Diamonds and Rio Tinto who have published mine wise data.

Carbon-neutral diamond mining
[Image Courtesy: De Beers]
Besides, even basic environmental reporting like GHG emissions is missing. Also beyond the GRI, sadly only 17% of around 50 active diamond mines have published their environmental impact in the public domain as of 2015-16.


Additionally, hardly any diamond mining companies implement International Council on Mining & Metals (ICMM) Sustainable Development principles and frameworkAA1000 Assurance Standard, enrol to Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), appear on CDP S&P 500 (Carbon Disclosure Leadership Index) or conform to Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), unlike their gold mining peers who wholeheartedly subscribe to such efforts.


In search of diamonds, De Beers exploits oceans too

As if it was not enough to destroy the world’s fragile ecosystem on land, De Beers has been mining for diamonds offshore too. De Beers through its JV with Namibian government – Nujoma, has been mining for diamonds off the shore of Namibia. It has a license to mine 6,000 square miles till 2035. The JV has a fleet of 6 vessels for the operations and in 2016 alone it produced 1.2 million carats of diamonds.

Carbon-neutral diamond mining
Mafuta [ Image Courtesy: Gazeli la Rai, De Beers, Nujoma]
Recently, De Beers deployed a state-of-art USD 157 million exploration ship – ‘mv SS Nujoma’, fitted with sonar technology and drilling device. However, environmentalists are very concerned about this undersea mining operations off the coast of Namibia. Recently, a family of seals swam off a mining vessel’s equipment as the 170-yard hose sucked the sediments. According to an operator of dredging equipment on board ‘Mafuta’ vessel, sometimes fishes and octopus are sucked up by the hose.

Emily Jeffers, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, a US-based NGO says “My concern with this and all deep-sea mining is that we just don’t know much about the deep sea at all. The worry is that we are going to irreparably harm this environment and these species before we discover them.”


Questionability of carbon-neutral diamond mining

Summarising the concern, it is clearly evident that diamond mining companies are undergoing intense vexation by the recent fall in the industry and rising concerns on environmental costs due to processes involved in diamond mining and operations. De Beers’ step towards mineral carbonation potential studies and The Oppenheimer De Beers Group Research Conference — to showcase its latest findings on biodiversity and ecosystem developments in the diamond trade; call for the submission of research papers to be presented, apparently, is a media farce to divert the attention of all over environment damages to just the resulted carbon emissions during the mining process.

Moreover, the research on mineral carbonation of kimberlite has yet not finished and is based on assumptions like fully tapping of the storage potential of kimberlite tailings. The carbon locked in kimberlite tailing will not stay there forever and can leak in environment after a span of time. The study also lacks the attribute of economical or practical achievement of this process. Some of the diamond mines have recently been closed due to the increased environmental vandalization for example, Snap lake diamond mine. Diamond industry is masking its fallacy by pondering the thoughts of stakeholders. Unfortunate – but that is the real picture of diamond mining and its environmental effects.


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