Q&A from the experts: In conversation with Dr Alan Wilson

June 8, 2021
Dr Alan Wilson
Dr Alan Wilson, Director and Chief Geologist at GeoAqua Consultants Limited

Dr Alan Wilson graduated from Edinburgh University (UK) with a Bachelor’s degree in Geological and Earth Sciences, immediately followed by a Master’s in Exploration and Mining Geology from the University of Leicester (UK) in 1991. Ten years later, he built upon that with a Doctoral degree in Economic Geology at the University of Tasmania (Australia), graduating in 2003. Between his Master’s and Doctorate, Alan worked mainly for Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, based in Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru. Post PhD, Alan has held increasingly senior positions in companies such as Anglo American as Copper Commodity Leader, and with Antofagasta as International Exploration Manager.

Alan is an experienced economic geologist having worked on grassroots to brownfields exploration projects in over 30 countries on five continents. Since leaving Antofagasta in 2019, Alan has resided in Anguilla, British West Indies where he and his wife run a private consultancy, GeoAqua Consultants, which provides expert technical and strategic consulting services to the mineral exploration and integrated water management sectors.

Timothy Strong: How did you decide to pursue a career in mineral exploration? Was it something that you had planned?

Alan Wilson: I had an interest in the outdoors from an early age, mainly due to family hiking trips in the Scottish Highlands. It was a holiday to Italy, and a trip to the top of Vesuvius that sparked my interest in geology, which I followed up with my Geology degree at Edinburgh University. During those studies, I became interested in ore deposits, so that, combined with a love of travel and the outdoors, is how I ended up pursuing a career in mineral exploration.

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

AW: Without a doubt, Bolivia. Working and living there in the mid-1990s was fascinating on many levels. Not only was the geology varied, prospective and challenging, but the culture, history and geography of the country were captivating. Being able to travel the length and breadth of the country both for work and pleasure allowed me to appreciate its diverse nature, from Andean volcanos and salt flats in the west to the Amazonian jungles of the east. The people were (generally!) welcoming and the cultural history of the country, including the pre-Columbian archeological sites of Tiwanaku and Samaipata, the silver mines of Cerro Rico de Potosí, the Casa Nacional de la Moneda (National Mint) in Potosí and the Jesuit missions of Chiquitos are all sights that people need to see.

TS: What has been the most satisfying moment of your career to date?

AW: There have been lots of highlights in my career so far, and hopefully more to come, but I think the most satisfying period has been since venturing out as an independent consultant. Being able to apply my experience to help clients understand the geology of their exploration targets and making recommendations that transform into ore grade drill intersections is very pleasing. I also enjoy the training and mentoring aspect of my consulting role, being able to help younger geologists develop the skills needed to be successful explorers and well-rounded applied economic geologists.

TS: You have worked for some of the biggest mining and exploration houses in the world, how did that shape your career?

AW: My experience working with the major mining companies early in my career was positive and provided a strong foundation on which to develop the skills needed to be successful. Lots of useful field time, practical mentoring by more experienced colleagues, and the opportunity to visit mines regionally were all essential components to my early career development. So too was the opportunity to attend technical conferences locally and regionally, which not only provided further exposure to technical ideas but also enabled me to develop a network of international contacts in the exploration community, many of which I have remained in touch with over the years.

Finally, being exposed to early-stage exploration in countries such as Ecuador and Bolivia, especially in the early 90s when modern exploration by Western exploration companies was less common than today, demanded that I learn Spanish fluently and quickly, and also sensitized me to the concerns and needs of indigenous communities when strangers come on to their lands seeking untapped mineral wealth.

TS: From your point of view, what is (are) the most important factor(s) that make a good exploration geologist?

AW: It is a bit of a cliché, but to be a good exploration geologist, you need to see lots of rocks and ore deposits and be mentored in how to interpret, in a practical and applied sense, what the rocks are trying to tell you in the context of ore deposit models. Today, rock observation is complemented by an array of additional data layers and tools (e.g. multi-element geochemistry, applied lithogeochemistry, spectral and hyperspectral data, deep penetrating geophysics and associated inversions, mineral chemistry, etc.) that are all potentially useful in the discovery process, but without a solid understanding of the geological framework of an exploration target, these additional datasets can confuse, rather than assist, interpretations. Additionally, a successful exploration geologist will question exploration models if the target under evaluation does not easily fit into a well-recognized deposit style, as models are only there to guide exploration and need to be constantly challenged and tested against new geological information generated during exploration programs.

TS: What is the most interesting deposit you have ever worked at?

AW: Of the ones I can talk about publicly, it would have to be the Cadia Au-Cu alkalic porphyry district in NSW, Australia. This was the subject of my PhD research, and notwithstanding the fact that I concluded this study almost 20 years ago, I have recently been researching what the upper parts of these systems may look like, so as to apply new models to exploration projects for alkalic porphyry deposits in the appropriate belts of rocks. These porphyry deposits differ from their more abundant calc-alkaline counterparts in that they do not develop the visually distinctive lithocaps that provide a footprint to guide exploration. Instead, alteration appears quite distinct, and understanding what the footprint of the upper and distal portions of alkalic porphyry deposits looks like is a real exploration opportunity. Remember, Cadia is host to 50 Moz of gold and 10 million tonnes of copper, so these deposits are valid exploration targets that have likely been overlooked in many parts of the world.

TS: How is the current COVID-19 pandemic affecting the mining industry, in particular the consulting side of the business?

AW: Border closures, quarantine restrictions and the general disruption to both domestic and international travel have seriously impacted all business, not just the mining and exploration industry. For those that rely on travel to carry out their normal business, such as geological consultants, the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of new technology to allow seamless access to data, thus enabling some tasks to be completed from home. Whilst it is essentially impossible to log drill core using high-quality digital photos, access to such data, when used with spectral and geochemical data does allow for a good degree of remote interpretation. Companies have also adapted to the concept that, whilst not ideal, having consultants work remotely does still deliver value. So, for me personally, I have remained essentially fully booked since the start of the pandemic, though I am looking forward to a return to the field when conditions allow.

TS: Do you think there will be an increase in residential roles when the COVID-19 pandemic clears?

AW: No, I don’t think so, as very few mining companies are set up to run operations with a fully residential workforce that includes workers’ families. So, for most operations, drive-in, drive-out (or FIFO) will remain the norm in my opinion, though both companies and employees will need to remain flexible as we ride out the remainder of the pandemic.

TS: You have been fortunate to work all over the world, with bases including Australia and Canada. How do these two places differ in their views on mineral exploration?

AW: Both Australia and Canada have a long history of mining and mineral exploration, with state and federal governments that are broadly supportive of a robust mineral resources sector. With regards to facilitating mineral exploration, I would say that Australia is more forward-looking than Canada, with all states and territories providing key pre-competitive datasets, such as geological maps, detailed geochemical and geophysical data, mineral occurrence information, etc. Most importantly, however, state-run core libraries that store hundreds of thousands to millions of meters of drill core from past exploration drilling make core available not only for examination but also for further non-destructive study. As an example, the core reference library of South Australia holds over 7.5 million meters (24 606 299 ft) of drill core and associated metadata, with samples dating back over 130 years of prospecting and exploration history. What an amazing resource to kick-start new exploration programs!

Alan Wilson in the field
Dr Alan Wilson in the field

TS: You have worked at the Telfer deposit, Paterson Province, WA in collaboration with the Telfer mine geology team in order to develop a holistic exploration model for district and regional exploration for similar gold-copper systems. Please share more about the deposit and the exploration model.

AW: The Telfer sediment-hosted gold-copper deposit has had a number of geological models since its discovery in the 1970s, as all complex orebodies should. The bedding-parallel nature of outcropping mineralization led early explorers to propose a syngenetic to early diagenetic model for ore deposition, though later explorers and researchers proposed a genetic relationship to magmatic rocks. Our recently published descriptive paper on Telfer is the culmination of over 40 years of exploration and research on the deposit and concludes that gold-copper mineralization is located in a distal position to as-yet-unidentified felsic causative intrusion. Evidence to support this interpretation includes a strong affinity with the element tungsten that is commonly associated with intrusion-related gold deposits, as well as geophysical data, fluid inclusion and isotopic studies and most importantly, the local presence of fingers of mineralized felsic intrusive rock in deep drilling in the West Dome sector of the deposit. All of these datasets can be used to construct an exploration model for the broader Paterson Province, although recent discoveries elsewhere in the province, whilst being broadly similar in that they are gold-copper deposits hosted in sedimentary rocks, have sufficient differences to Telfer to indicate that the exploration model for ‘Telfer-type’ deposits remains a work in progress

TS: Antofagasta is a well-known name to

those within the industry but not so renowned on the outside, why do you think that is?

AW: I would argue that the names of many large mining companies are not well-known outside of our industry, not just Antofagasta. Our industry has a history of keeping a low profile, unfortunately only appearing in the public eye when there is an event of environmental or cultural destruction. Whilst publicity for avoidable incidents such as these is absolutely warranted, I think it is incumbent on our industry to stand up for itself and educate the general public about the critical role the mining industry plays in the creation of a modern and sustainable society. This role will only become more important as the world moves towards a ‘green economy’. It is also incumbent on our industry to show the public that mining can and does take place using 21st century technology, with innovation and sustainability at the core of everything it does.

TS: Tell us about Heliostar Metals, a company to which you recently joined the Board.

AW: Heliostar is a junior precious metals exploration company with exploration-stage projects in South-eastern Alaska, US and Sonora, Mexico.

Its flagship asset is the Unga project, a large, intermediate sulphidation epithermal vein system with associated porphyry copper-gold mineralization, located on Unga and Popof Islands, in the Aleutians, Alaska. Due to my technical and commercial background, I was asked to join the Board by Heliostar’s President and CEO, Charles Funk, with whom I had worked previously in a number of joint venture agreements on copper projects in British Columbia. I think the assets are high quality, and Charles has the right leadership skills and drive to make the company a success, so hopefully, I can be an integral part of this success story as work advances.

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

AW: The biggest change that I have seen is that most contractors now view themselves as partners in a drill program, rather than just contractors. Typically, there is strong collaboration on safety and technical innovation, to improve drilling performance whilst reducing safety risks and environmental impact of drilling activities. Many drill companies now have their own innovation departments and collaborate in research projects aimed to deliver products that provide near real-time measurement of downhole structure, assay data, geophysical information, etc. So, the relationship with a drill contractor today is much more than just drilling holes; it is about collaboration to deliver maximum value from the core or chips produced, in the quickest time possible and with no safety or environmental impact.

TS: You have drilled at high altitude; does this pose any challenges?

AW: Absolutely. When drilling projects in Bolivia, typically at altitudes of greater than 4500 m (14 763 ft), I quickly learned from the drillers and the drill rig manufacturers that rig performance diminishes by about 1% for every 100 m (328 ft) elevation. So, at 4500 m, rig performance is compromised by about 45%. This has a significant impact on how the drillers operate their machinery and they have to work hard to find a balance between optimal rig performance under difficult conditions and maximum rig production. It has been a few years since I have drilled at those altitudes however, so there may have been some engineering advances that have overcome some of the challenges my drillers faced in the mid-90s.

TS: What makes a drill campaign successful?

AW: Assuming you have all permits in place and the required approvals from the local community, the most critical part of a drill campaign is contractor selection. Not only does the contractor need to have the right equipment for the job, even more critical is the provision of suitably experienced drillers. Assuming that both equipment and drillers are up to the task, the other key contributing factor to a successful drill program is support for the drillers from their operational base. Breakdowns are inevitable, and so as to minimize lost time, efficient and practical support from the driller’s operational base is essential in order to provide spare parts or engineering assistance as quickly as possible. Whilst it is true that the cost of breakdowns is generally borne by the drilling company, all drill programs have the standing cost of having exploration staff in the field, camp running costs, etc., so getting a rig back up and running again in the shortest period of time is in everyone’s interest.

TS: You have a lot of copper experience, copper is having a hot time now, where do you see the price going from here?

AW: I am not a market analyst so am not qualified to make any informed prediction as to what future copper prices may be. However, when you look at the global shift to a low carbon green economy that reduces our reliance on fossil fuels, the future for copper can only be viewed as positive. Whilst substitution provides a natural cap on the price of any commodity, the physical properties of copper make it extremely hard to completely replace in the process of electricity generation and transmission.

Decisions being made by governments and companies around the world today, whether to adopt wind or solar as a low carbon alternative for power generation or to transition to electric vehicles, will only add to the demand for copper, with the natural consequence of higher prices until supply exceeds demand. Additionally, the natural antibacterial and antiviral properties of copper, long known to geologists and also to past civilizations, provide an additional growth market in healthcare, public transport, and areas of high human transit, particularly in light of the on-going global pandemic.

TS: With the lack of large deposits being found, what is next for copper exploration?

AW: Two things come to mind. First is that sustained increase in the price of copper will render previously uneconomic deposits profitable, thus allowing for their development in a responsible and sustainable way. Secondly, I am firmly of the opinion that a large proportion of future mines, not only for copper but for all commodities, will be large-scale underground operations, for social and environmental reasons. This trend has been recognized by exploration and mining companies that have shifted their exploration focus to targets at greater depth, using improved exploration models and geophysical data. Deposits such as the Resolution porphyry system in Arizona, US and the Oak Dam IOCG discovery in South Australia, both of which lie at more than one kilometer below the surface, will be the mines of tomorrow.

TS: What does the future hold for Mineral Exploration in general?

AW: There is a bit of a dichotomy facing the mineral exploration industry and the industrializing world. Increasing urbanization of countries such as China and India, with the associated growth of a wealthy middle class, leads naturally to increased demand for a whole range of natural resources. However, with wealth and urbanization often comes the opinion that mining is a ‘dirty’ industry that should take place ‘somewhere else’. So, the dichotomy is that developed countries are the largest consumers of natural resources, but are often reluctant to develop valuable and potentially highly profitable resources that lie within their own territorial borders to assuage the concerns of their materialistic voter base. The only long-term solution to this issue is if countries accept their individual responsibility to sustainably, and with as small an impact as possible, develop profitable resources within their borders.

As for mineral exploration companies, selecting a jurisdiction in which to invest hard won exploration dollars is no easy task. Highly developed nations such as countries in Europe and North America may offer a safe, corruption-free operating environment, but the risk of development being stymied by communities and NGOs in the event of discovery is high. However, going to a prospective exploration frontier in a less-well explored corner of the world, such as the Sahel or Myanmar, may reduce discovery risk but comes not only with significant operational risk but also risk of security of tenure, exposure to corruption, etc. Equally, there is no guarantee that discoveries in high-risk jurisdictions can transform into mines, highlighting the importance of solid ESG programs from the commencement of exploration.

Having said all of this, the future for mineral exploration has to be bright; as the old bumper sticker says: ‘If it can’t be grown, it has to be mined!’.

For more information visit: www.geoaquaconsultants.com

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