The nuances of port site selection for mineral resources projects

Port site selection for mineral resources projects, is a complex and exciting process that needs to consider the entire transportation logistics of moving the resource from the “pit to port”.

The mineral resource sector is set to continue to grow as population, economy, and wealth increase. Oil, natural gas, coal, and iron ore are among the major minerals that will drive the global economy. The logistics infrastructure network that services the mineral resource sector is essential in the global growth scenario, but could represent potential failure in a project if not properly addressed. Mineral resources are notoriously hidden in remote locations, resulting in mining sites being generally inaccessible with no existing logistics infrastructure network.

In mining projects, the logistics infrastructure network encompasses a series of elements responsible to connect the source of raw material to the final user. It is a synchronised and complex web seamlessly moving the transforming raw material for its future use. In this multi-dimensional puzzle of infrastructure, ports act as a node between land and sea. It provides a place for products to be stored, sold, bagged, boxed, combined, mixed, blended, and ultimately loaded onto a vessel to the next step of the journey.

The majority of capital investment in mining projects typically covers the cost of mining and processing, while the transportation of the processed resource is an afterthought. This can result in unreliable logistics infrastructure network. The definition of ports functionality including the physical location of this “node” is of paramount importance for the overall success of the project.

As ports belong to the logistics infrastructure network, the definition of a port site depends on several factors and circumstances. It is an interesting and very exciting exercise identifying a suitable site between the mine and the sea, and it involves a holistic approach including multiple disciplines and different stakeholders.

There is no specific recipe to select a port site, but in general, it is wise to consider the use of existing port facilities to reduce capital investment in projects. However, if the engineering and economics of this combination prove to be unfeasible, then the process should start by looking at the vessel size that is expected to service the project and a high level study of the coast line trying to identify “sweet spots” that align with the functionality required.

Sweet spots are the perfect location for a port and represent a balance in the demands of the site: It has sufficient draft for the vessel, it provides shelter for the vessel operation and enough onshore space for storage, it is closer to the mine site, and it represents minimal environmental and social impact. Unfortunately sweet spots are rare and this is where creative engineering comes into play.

Articulation of the evaluation process is key to engagement of stakeholders, the use of simulation tools, combined with economic and environmental conditions in the context of port construction and operation lead to the best site location and demonstrate not only why the site has been chosen but why others have not.

A successful example of port selection is Cavalla Resources’ iron ore project in Liberia. Ausenco conducted the port selection considering new and existing facilities. The port assessment took into consideration different logistics transportation methods including rail, truck, overland conveyor, and pipeline. Local environment and social consultants provided vital information into the process and the final results concluded that a new port serviced by trucks hauling ore from the mine site to a new river port and transhipment via barges to an ocean going vessel was the most favourable solution for Cavalla’s project. The project is now moving into the bankable feasibility study stage.

The most important in a port selection process is to avoid evaluating the sites selection in isolation. Port selection is a complex process and intuition and traditional design will not guarantee an optimal result. The selection process must assess the entire operation from mining to final destination.

A resource is worthless until sold. Getting the logistics right is priceless.

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