The activity of mining a mineral deposit covers four basic, inter-related stages. Initial identification of an area with a mineral deposit is exploration. The goal, thereof, is to locate in 3-D space, in reference to the earth’s surface a concentration of a mineral commodity and to define its’ inherent value in the broadest, most general terms. Development follows exploration and is concerned with defining in detail the distribution of value in each production unit, determining the engineering and geotechnical characteristics of the mineral deposit and designing and constructing a mining operation to safely and efficiently mine the mineral deposit. It differs from the exploration stage in that economic constraints are applied to assess the potential of the mineral deposit to profitably support mining operations. It is at the development stage where mining resource classifications are converted to mining reserves. The operation stage follows the development stage and is when the actual mining activity occurs. Closure and reclamation follow operations and require planning and preparation to mitigate the mined lands for post-mining activity and land use.
All four stages are regulated by government agencies and all activities must be permitted prior to initiation. Certain permits are formulaic but most require significant supporting technical studies that may take a year or more to complete. Permits are conditional and must be maintained and updated at regular intervals. Compliance is enforced through financial bonding requirements. Permitting activities begin before any exploration is initiated and last well past the closure and reclamation of a mining operation.
In actual practice the four stages are not strictly sequential in execution. The financial bonding requirements attached to many permits encourage so-called contemporaneous reclamation as soon as particular activities on an affected parcel are completed. For example, as soon as an exploration drill hole is completed, the drill pad is re-contoured and re-vegetated. Similarly, as soon as a portion of a tailings facility is filled, it is stabilized and mitigated.
The four stages require significantly different capital resources. Exploration performed carefully and wisely is the least capital intensive stage and is the stage where junior mining sector is most active. Development is the most capital intensive stage and is rarely brought to completion by junior companies without some input from larger, established firms. Operations of large mines are exclusively undertaken by larger mining companies. Small mining operations are often the concern of junior and mid-size companies. In most cases, larger mining companies dominate the development, operations and closure-reclamation stages.