Q&A from the experts: In conversation with Drew Craig

October 23, 2020
Drew Craig Managing Director at Rocklore Exploration Services Limited

Drew Craig graduated from the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) in 1997 with a Bachelor’s degree in Geology and in 1999, gained a Masters from the Royal School of Mines at Imperial College, London. As a mineral exploration and project management specialist, Drew has a wealth of experience, gained from multiple projects focused on various commodities and deposit types. Drew has worked for a broad range of consultants and companies through his successful consulting company, Rocklore Exploration Services Limited. He currently holds positions across a number of businesses and is a fellow of the Geological Society and Chartered Engineer through the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining. He has participated in several expeditions, including a source-to-sea navigation of the Amazon, and has competed twice in the arduous Marathon des Sables.

Timothy Strong: What were your biggest influences when you first started out in geology?

Drew Craig: I didn’t have the opportunity to study geology whilst at school, but my geography teacher was a closet geologist who recognized my interests in physical geography and the desire to understand the landscape. He gave me a nudge in the right direction and geology was a logical progression. Studying at St Andrews – at the foot of some fantastic Scottish geology, certainly made it a passion.

TS: You started your career in oil and gas. What was the main driver to study mineral exploration and switch to mining?

DC: Coming from Aberdeen, the oil and gas sector was an obvious choice for a geologist with a general geology degree. I could have gone offshore but opted to keep my feet on solid ground. However, a further degree was needed to advance beyond the geodata analyst work that I had started with. Keeping my options open, I was lucky enough to gain places at Imperial College in both Mineral Exploration and Petroleum Geology Masters courses. I chose ‘MinEx’ as it afforded the opportunity to put into practice a far greater repertoire of technical, scientific and field skills.

TS: Which country has left the strongest impression on you?

DC: Tough question. I have been so very lucky to have worked with some great people and in so many amazing places. They’ve all had different impressions and for good and bad reasons. If I had to pick one, it would probably be the time I spent in Afghanistan. I was working as a US Department of Defense contractor tasked with developing the mineral sector. From 2013 to 2015, I spent periods working across a range of projects, including: assessing prospective projects around the country; mentoring geologists from the Afghanistan Geological Survey; and assisting the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum with marketing and the tender of a number of license packages. The geology is truly stunning, especially when viewed from the open door of a helicopter! Afghanistan is largely unexplored, making it an exploration geologist’s dream. Beyond geology, there was the obvious matter of an ongoing insurgency conflict and the odd earthquake! It made for a challenging time, which on reflection, was hard work yet exhilarating and highly rewarding.

TS: The Afghani Government sought your expertise on minerals policy and industry development. What lies ahead for the country’s mineral development?

DC: It’s been a few years since my involvement in Afghanistan, and regrettably the security situation has yet to reach the tipping point at which mining is going to contribute in a significant way to the prosperity of the Afghan people. All the organizations offering funding and support need to improve their collaboration and coordination. Lamentably, over USD 855 million has been spent in Afghanistan on developing the natural resources sector, and there is little to show for it. The opportunity is there, but it will be another decade at least before significant revenue can be realized.

TS: In terms of geology, what country has been the most interesting and why?

DC: Saudi Arabia. I’ve worked there for various clients and with my own exploration venture, so I’ve accumulated a large number of miles, witnessing a lot of different deposit types. I enjoy working in the desert environment as you can really see the geology. The Arabian Shield represents half of the Arabian-Nubian Shield, and I’ve also worked in Egypt and more recently, Djibouti. It was a real treat to visit the Afar triple junction and see some very young volcanics in an active rift zone.

Drew Craig examining rock outcrops in Egypt

TS: You’ve worked extensively throughout the Middle East. What were the region’s main challenges?

DC: The challenges I have experienced in the Middle East are mirrored in many regions – climate, culture, environment, security, plus a range of other factors. This is the reality of exploration and development and therefore exploration geologists need to employ a broad range of skills to be able to work safely and efficiently.

TS: Accessing working capital is one of the greatest challenges in the exploration sector. How do you see the impasse being broken?

DC: There’s plenty of money out there yet most will agree, the junior sector’s processes or routes to finance have been flawed for many years. Investor access to deals, especially private deals, has historically been limited by nepotistic brokers. What’s needed is a disruptive and innovative approach to empower issuers and enhance access for investors. This is why I’ve been working with the MINEXIA team to develop the NR Private Market platform. We’re seeking to emulate the likes of AirBnB and Uber, using online technology to provide the necessary communication and transactional functionality.

TS: You mentioned MINEXIA. You’re also involved with Enthalpy. Tell us more.

DC: For a little over a year, I’ve been expanding Enthalpy’s presence in EMEA region. Enthalpy services the project development and execution needs of capital-intensive global industries – mining, oil and gas, infrastructure, energy and utilities. The focus is less on geology and more on project management but it’s an opportune time to help clients raise their compliance standards while optimizing their people, processes, and platforms to deliver complex projects.

TS: What’s the most interesting deposit type you’ve worked on and why?

DC: There’s something about large-scale, open-pit mining that is undeniably attractive, especially within an interesting country. Some of the most obvious examples are porphyries and I had the pleasure of working at the Reko Diq project in Pakistan as the Prefeasibility Study Resource Manager.  It is an amazing deposit and proved a challenge with such a big geology team and up to eight drill rigs. That was a real eye-opener for me, working with deep specialists from Antofagasta and Barrick, and subsequently playing a part in the international arbitration that has unfortunately led to this project remaining undeveloped to date.

TS: Much of your career has been focused on the Arabian Nubian Shield. What are the barriers to minerals development in these nations?

DC: The legislative framework, comprising the mining law and the mining regulations, is invariably the greatest barrier. Security of tenure and threat of nationalization have been ranked highly as sectoral risks in recent years. There does, however, seem to be some movement. The Saudi 2030 Vision project aims to improve investment access to foreign entities. Recent oil prices suggest that we may see further strategic pivots by sovereign petrostates to rebalance their natural resource income. With that, I hope we’ll also see more states offering greater and free access to the vast amounts of data that they’ve accumulated over decades of work.

TS: You’ve worked in ‘frontier districts’. Where are the next big deposits likely to be found?

DC: I think there are two key areas. Firstly, those states that until now have been adverse or inaccessible to foreign investment; and secondly, those areas where climate change is making access possible. On the former, I’ve already mentioned Afghanistan and Pakistan. Clearly, you need a great deal more than geological savvy to operate in these areas. On the latter, I think we’ll see more in the high Arctic, notably Greenland and Scandinavia and northern Russia. But I also wouldn’t discount the advent of neo-frontier districts, for example Cyprus, where data from extensive historical mining, coupled with new technology, may lead to the prospect of new discoveries.

TS: What is your view of COVID-19’s impact on the mineral exploration sector?

DC: At the time of writing, there seems to be progress on reducing the impact of the virus, but longer-term consequences will be truly global and resonate for many years to come. I anticipate that we’ll see a shift in nation-states’ desire to secure strategic supplies for raw materials, either within their own territories or within those states with more transparent and reliable credentials. In the short-term, I’d like to think that we’ll return to some form of ‘normality’ before the end of the year. Right now, it’s hard to see what’s coming next week, let alone next month!

TS: You operate your own consultancy. How has this line of work developed over the last 10 years?

DC: I’ve been operating through Rocklore Exploration Services since 2003 and given the various interests I’ve already mentioned, it still affords me great flexibility. Large consultancy firms will continue to need associates so it’s a bit of the best of both worlds. The most discernable change is what a relatively small consultancy can achieve on its own whilst maintaining a small and cost-efficient footprint. New price models have made software accessibility more affordable and working from home can improve productivity by reducing lost time on commuting, as many are discovering right now.

TS: Will small consultancies become more prominent post-COVID-19?

DC: I think smaller consultancies have always had their part to play – either as niche specializations or through commercial agility. By that I mean many small consultancies offer an array of specialist services or skillsets and switch to alternative sources of income during cyclic downturns – a fact of exploration life well before COVID-19. I do believe that if exploration and development funding tighten, there will be an opportunity for many small consultancy firms to be more competitive.

TS: You work with the British Military. Tell us what is involved, as many readers may be unaware of geologists in the military.

DC: There are three geologists in the Royal Engineers, and all are reservist officers. We’re responsible for supporting a range of operational matters, including defense intelligence, support to material science, well drilling and water development, infrastructure assessment, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, UK resilience, and interestingly, subterranean warfare. I’ve served in the Reserve for some 27 years in roles such as infrastructure support, civil-military coordination, geographic support and leading a sub-unit of explosive ordnance disposal and search specialists.  Now, as the Army’s senior geologist, I can honestly say that it’s some of the most interesting and rewarding work that I’ve done during my career to date.

TS: What changes have you observed in the way drilling contractors work over the past 20 years?

DC: My first experience of exploration drilling was with a man-portable rig in Yemen. A tough environment at the best of times, but a blessing to work with great drillers who really understood the need to work closely with the local community. In recent years drilling contractors have had to operate beyond the technical service aspects and look more holistically at how they fit into projects. At an early stage, drilling contractors can often be the largest employer at a project so environmental and social governance has become just as important as drilling.

TS: What drilling technology developments do you see making an impact in the next few years?

DC: It amazes me how quickly some technology is being developed. Automation and directional drilling are interesting, but I see growth opportunities in reducing the time to generate data, so that the geologist can better monitor the hole with enhanced 3D knowledge of the deposit. Down-the-hole sensors and rig-site labs can generate data almost immediately and that data can now be transmitted via satellite to head office. Beyond that, the possibilities for utilizing non-destructive core scanning systems are remarkable.

TS: Can you share your worst experience with an exploration drilling company?

DC: One project comes to mind – a challenging location requiring heli-drilling operations. Substandard logistical support combined with some woeful drilling led to significant delays, which blew out the program schedule and resulted in ridiculous overall cost per meter drilled. Other than that project, I’ve seen some odd working practices in Russia and Kazakhstan, but we’ve always managed to get the job done.

TS: You’ve mentored graduates and students. What’s your advice to those who are starting out in mining?

DC: I’ve got an entire presentation on this subject, so it’ll be tough to reduce it to a short answer! However, here are my five themes:

  • Communication: build confidence with written and spoken communication as it’s a vital skill at all levels and across management, community, and investors.
  • Experience: cultural awareness, professional standing and charterships, and hands-on international experience.
  • Skills: languages, driving, navigation, etc. – anything that can help you do your job better and make you more than ‘just the geologist’.
  • Education: never stop learning and take the opportunity to pass it on.
  • Passion: if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, you’re undoubtedly doing the wrong job, for the wrong reason.

TS: What’s does the future hold for Mineral Exploration?

DC: I think the most obvious opportunity lies in digitizing the mass of global historical work, and allowing machine learning and ‘artificial intelligence’ applications to do their thing. There are companies doing this already, and they’re spotting and pegging opportunities that a few decades ago might have been minorly anomalous, yet now are of great interest. The greatest threat lies in market atrophy. As a sector, we need to better align our businesses to address climate change – protect the environment and counter media bias against the unavoidable need for natural resources. Beyond that, I’m going to embrace my inner sci-fi geek here and look forward to what will become possible in outer space, most notably on the moon.

For more information visit: www.rocklore.co.uk