45 years of geology and mineral exploration: The personal journey of a project generator

August 1, 2019

by Jean Lafleur, P. Geo. (OGQ, APGO), Mineral Exploration and Management Consultant – Blainville (Quebec) Canada at PJLEXPL Inc.

Life’s journey is challenging. Whether planned or unplanned, intentional or happy-golucky, or shortened or long, life offers a variety of trials and experiences in both personal and professional situations. My wish is that your lives are as fulfilling
as mine has been.

I managed to achieve professionally what I had always wanted: to study geology and become a geologist. First, in academia, then, in the mineral exploration industry. Geology is a spiritual journey for me. Learning about minerals, rocks, fossils, time and scale was as much a stepping stone to knowing myself, but also discovering the Universe on a big scale down to the local earthly environment we live in. Geology has also taught me science, trust, teamwork, sharing, self-assurance, open mindedness, being opportunistic, creation, promoting, and a general sense of belonging. It has also shown me the flip side through failure, neglect, loneliness, being absent, hidden agendas, fake news and people, and capitalism.

I’ve spent the last 35 years in the mineral exploration industry, and it has been quite the adventure, which is far from being over. This is an exciting but difficult industry, as it mixes many professions and individuals all vying for the discovery of mineral commodities to develop them into mines.

The path leading to the discovery of metal has not really changed even though many would have us believe the contrary. The challenge we face is not only technical, it is also social, economic, regulatory, environmental and political. As geologists we should not fear these challenges, we should embrace them, just as we witness happening in other industries.

Mineral exploration is a combination of science, art and experience. The science drives the discovery of mineral resources; the art drives the imaging and promoting of it; and the experience constrained by rules and policies drives the entire process.

The essentials of this journey are the 5Ws of mineral exploration: Observe, Data, Trying, Change, and Infer.
That’s my experience!

1. Observe what you are seeing

In geology, time and scale are key to understanding what physically surrounds us. The Earth had time to evolve into what it is today, including all life on the surface. And what we observe at the large scale over great distances mimic what we observe at the smaller scale.

I learned early on, observing minerals, rocks, and geological features. Mentors gave me learning opportunities in data gathering, synthesizing, interpreting, and reporting the geology; then came mineral exploration and geological mapping for the discovery of metals. I became an experienced geologist and an expert in mineral exploration for gold and other metals.

Project ‘A’ was an icebreaker in terms of scale. What geologists observe at the millimeter, centimeter and meter scales in a thin section, rock outcrop and drill core represent what we observe at the kilometer scale.

The original vendor of Project ‘A’ had spent several million dollars in mineral exploration work to delineate a significant mineralized zone. Drill intercepts gave grade gold over tens of meters widths. The company I was with bought the project and continued drilling along the known trend of the mineralization, estimated by surface field work and geophysics to be in excess of 10 kilometers. It was a no-brainer in terms of projecting several million gold ounces in target potential. Our company’s threshold was 5 million ounces of gold.

Within the first year of delineation and definition drilling we realized that the mineralization was restricted to a much smaller area. A crisis was in the making. We could not envision the larger potential. I as Regional Manager, other senior management officials, and geologists met on-site to discuss the project’s shortcomings, our targeting approach, and the ultimate potential.

On a break from our discussions, I ventured outside for a walk where hundreds of drill core boxes had been laid out on the ground, all tagged with gold assay results labelled on them. As I walked along the rows of core boxes, I was suddenly attracted to a 30-centimeter piece of drill core because of what appeared to be a light-gray colored fragment 4 cm in length against a background of black rock. I bent over and picked it up, and what I observed was phenomenal; it was a small-scale representation of the mineralized zone! This 4-centimeter fragment mimicked what we saw on the kilometer scale. I ran back to the core shed and grabbed my hand lens, a red grease pencil, and camera then ran back to the core piece. I carefully noted what I observed and took pictures. Later in the day I went back with management and geologists, and we observed as a group the same piece of core. All were in agreement about what I observed. We modified our exploration program accordingly, recognizing the importance of the discovery.

Further drilling confirmed the mineralization was restricted to ‘fragments’ without a significant size potential, and we never found another one. The multi-million-ounce potential dried up and the company ultimately withdrew the following year. The original vendor persisted and eventually sold the project to another player in the region that eventually developed a 1-million-ounce deposit and mined it.

At the Tsabong Diamond Project in 2012, Botswana, Africa

2. Enter the data
Data equals understanding

Here’s a recent quote from Randy Lao of VS Media: ‘Data is not about statistics, machine learning, visualization, or wrangling. Data is about understanding. Understanding the problem and how you can solve it using data with whatever tools or techniques you choose. Understand your problem. Understand your data. And the rest will follow.’

The sole objective in mineral exploration is to discover, delineate, and define metal accumulation using the least time and effort. Complete the mineral exploration work by collecting quality data. If it does not work out, move on. There are many opportunities out there.

Project ‘B’ had a small mineral resource based on several limited mineralized gold zones. More than 200 kilometers of core existed for the project, the bulk of which went to test the series of small zones over a 7-kilometer trend. The work covered a 40- year period where more than 30 geologists in mineral exploration were helping advance the project over the years.

As VP Exploration and later President of the company, I would visit the site from time to time with our Senior Geologist and examine drill core. We had little money to explore. I would visit the project site to better understand the geology and the gold mineralization. I was curious as to why previous operators could not find more gold in larger zones. At each visit the Senior Geologist would take out core boxes and show me the different gold mineralization, the variety of rock, and the difficulty in correlating the work into a simple geology model. There were reams of paper and electronic data, close to 1 terabyte in drill core data, geology, geophysics, and interpretations, with a mountain of assessment and technical reports filling 20 banking boxes. A daunting task for anyone to summarize the project in a few PowerPoint slides.

The long-term perspective of future targeting to maximize the metal potential of the project was impossible. Or it seemed so! Promoting to finance the project to get it going again seemed impossible. There was no interest among the financial markets. Our stock price was at historical lows, in the pennies. A different strategy in financing was required. I decided to use the data to our advantage. We needed to re-evaluate the data we had. The geology was confusing. We could not reconcile the basic rock nomenclature. We had more than 100 rock types, alteration and structural codes, and assays from different laboratories. We could not correlate one geology cross-section to the next, even though the assays proved that we could. The geology had to be ‘made’ to fit! It was ugly.

I essentially proposed starting over with a new team of geologists and technicians, each with their own specialty of data gathering, synthesizing, interpreting, and reporting in a short period of time. This was to demonstrate that the smaller mineralized zones were part of a much larger gold system that could be amenable to open-pit mining that was the trend at the time. Could I get a minimum financing to re-log drill core simplifying the geology and re-interpreting the model and to demonstrate a larger multi-million-ounce mineralized gold system? The answer was a resounding yes! The company managed to finance a first CAD$1.6 million. Then, with positive results and a simplified geology and mineral exploration model, we were able to show the real gold potential of the project and raise an additional CAD$16 million. The historic data even showed a new mineralized higher gold grade zone that had been forgotten. The gold mineralization was extended for an additional 3 kilometers, now encompassing more than 20 km2 of target potential. All because of data!

3. Success is in trying

What’s important in geology: hard work; staying focused; building your geological model early; selling the concept for financing; and money. Keep in mind it may take years or decades to discover and even rediscover metal and a deposit. Project ‘C’ was more than 22 years in the making. At first it was part of my Top 10 Hit List of Projects. The company I worked for wanted us, the district geologists, to compile an opportunistic acquisition list. The project showed promise. It had several core-drilled mineralized zones with significant gold values over large widths over a multikilometer strike length. I had approached the vendor at the time asking if there was an interest in optioning and joint venturing the project. They said no. Positive results continued coming in over time. I continued showing my interest, but they did not take the bait. They eventually optioned the project to a mid-size producer who focused on one near-surface zone. Major exploration and development investments were made, but the party eventually abandoned the project to concentrate elsewhere. Another organization came in, again made major investments, and yet again departed after a few years to develop another nearby project into mine production.

A decade had already passed with CAD$30 million invested by the original vendor and the two other parties, which yielded mineral resources of less than 250 000 gold ounces in several small lenses, believed at the time to be accessible via underground scenarios, but none of which appeared economic. Another decade passed as the original vendor did not seem to press on in adding more ounces or trying to develop the main gold zone. There were many different mineralization styles encountered, from gold hosted in porphyry, volcanic rocks, and iron formations and conglomerates, all related to iron sulphides with little to no quartz veins, spread out over a 7 km2 area. Quite the target!

Another few years went by, and then a fortunate coincidence occurred when a former associate of mine bought out the project. An opportunity? Sure, why not. They were looking for a VP Exploration at the time. I applied and got the job. A few years later, I became President, and we were able to finance the project in excess of CAD$17 million. The geological model had changed drastically; we had in excess of 4 million ounces and we focused on a different mining scenario than originally. Just goes to show, patience has its virtues!

There are no failures in geology; there are tests, experiments, checks and balances, and ordeals. Geology is 100 % risk, and it can’t be over-emphasized in mineral exploration, where I believe risk exceeds 100 %! It is present all the time – it is in the interpretations and models we formulate and build, in the mineral resources we develop. The work is never bulletproof. Success will come to those who try.

And successful achievements abound. Those I relish the most are guiding individuals to achieve their utmost potential in their professional endeavors, by helping them get a better education and training to improve their job situation. Success will also come by creating and advancing mineral exploration projects that will create jobs in mining to sustain communities, and I have been involved both directly as well as indirectly, as when assisting others. This work is part of my mission to practice sustainable development. Success and trying may also involve being laid off or fired from a job or changing jobs. You should embrace change as an opportunity to evolve into an improved ‘you’. Wallow for one day; then move on. My best prospects arose out of significant changes, whether they were the loss of a job, loss of a project or loss of an opportunity. Whatever or whoever took the decision is out of your control. Don’t worry about it. It’s a business decision. Good and bad decisions are made all the time.

I had the chance to study for my MSc thesis under a professor that I admired and wanted to work with because of his background in Precambrian geology. He knew me from my  earlier days. I applied and he rejected me! I was upset. I eventually found out he took on what I call a triple A student with high marks. There was an obvious advantage here for obtaining grants. As it turned out the student did poorly and he left his thesis work, abandoning it less than one year after he started. I went on to do my MSc thesis elsewhere and did outside contract geology work at the same time, which I could not have done at the original school. I was fortunate that the contract work was in areas that eventually became favorable for metal discovery. It gave me the opportunity to work with geologist mentors who helped form me into who I am today, and I had fun in the process.

At the Buena Vista Iron Ore Project in 2013, Nevada, USA

4. Change to transform

Exploration cycles exist 5, 10, and 20 years apart, and these days even every year! It is difficult to plan long-term mineral exploration unless one can finance a significant chunk of funds for two- to three-year programs. If one cannot, it is important to remain productive in other fields of geology and mineral exploration. Spend time contacting others; keep looking for opportunities in jobs; improve your skills; take courses, seminars or webinars; and travel. Recharge your energy level. Work to live. Write an article, your biography, fiction. The key is keeping busy.

It’s the same concept as changing jobs. In mineral exploration do not stay in the same job or in the same place for more than five years. Moving on to other challenges is not only good for your morale but also shows that as a geologist you can adapt to various jobs and working conditions. At one point I had 17 active contracts in one year, not all at once, but nevertheless it was a very constructive time in my life. Being on contract is the best, since it allows flexibility to work both on-site and at home. You are your own boss, and no one can change that.

Geology models are the same. The geology model drives mineral exploration in delineating or defining the most metal in the shortest possible time and at the least cost. They are knowledge-driven and are adapted to the data available. Papers generally abound on the geology of the area you work in, on other deposits in your area. Visit them and learn. The more data you have, the better the synthesis and interpretation that goes in, and a better model will arise. It doesn’t mean that the model is perfect, but start it somewhere. Then change it when there is more data available from your project or area or by comparing to other projects. The most capable geologist is the one that works on and visits as many projects and deposits as possible over their career. Geology and defining mineral resources are about making comparisons at all scales.

5. Infer or to be inferreds

I like to infer. Geology is one of the few sciences that you can infer from at the beginning through to the end. In mineral exploration, we infer from a scattering of data and limited access to geology, and in defining mineral resources. There was a time when defining mineral resources under the Inferred category was exciting. For the geologist it showed the true metal potential of a project. Over time and use, I was able to subdivide the category into True Inferreds, those mineral resources defined by a few drill holes with grade and a geology model, and a chance of being economic; and to ‘Potentially Mineralized Material’, which is a mineralized zone with an inferred length, width, depth and grade, and had comparatives to other mineralization in the region. It worked for a little while, but because of abuses, the securities and stock exchange commissions added economic parameters to the category, eliminating any discussion of potential. Nevertheless, I still use the approach in my exploration programs. Numbers remain internal and are not for public dissemination. In public reporting however, one can now write ranges of tonnes and grades to targets without the connotation of mineral resources categories.

The Inferreds vs Potentially Mineralized Material remains an excellent tool in providing a benchmark for targeting metal potential, program planning, and budgeting, and to constrain programs over smaller areas that could eventually lead to higher quality mineral resources. Before investors want to entrust you with their money, the most astute ones ask the geologists their opinion of the metal size potential. Current rules and regulations since the formation of National Instrument 43-101 do not allow geologists to speculate on mineral resources. I must admit, if an experienced geologist has a metal size potential target in mind, and has planned out a reasonable multi-phased mineral exploration program over a three- to five-year period, then I would invest in the company, the project, and the geologist and their team, rather than investing in one who has no idea on the subject!

Geology and mineral exploration remain high on my Top 10 List of things to continue doing. It’s a lifestyle. It opened my eyes to the worlds of minerals and rocks, people and their cultures, and has given me perspective about how small we are when compared to the whole universe. We are but one of many parts to the Universe. Geology, geologists, mineral exploration and mineral resources are there for all living creatures to benefit. Use them wisely. They are the link to our survival as Anatomically Modern Humans.

About the author

Jean Lafleur is a professional geologist with 45 years of experience in geology and mineral exploration nationally and internationally, as a C-suite executive and in management roles, and as a technical, management and financing consultant with junior explorers for the past 16 years through his private geo-consultancy firm. His expertise also spans company and project evaluations and audits; exploration program planning, execution and reporting, and research. He received his BSc and MSc degrees in Geology from the University of Ottawa, and was active as an exploration geologist early in his career with Newmont, Falconbridge, Dome Mines and Placer Dome. He has led exploration teams in the search for precious and base metals, nickel and PGEs, uranium, and iron. He brings a proven track record in mineral exploration leading to discovery, in strategic planning, and leadership skills.