DOD, U.S. Agencies Help Afghanistan Exploit Mineral Wealth
By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 30, 2012 Officials from the Defense Department and the U.S. Geological Survey gathered this month at Afghanistan’s U.S. Embassy to unveil what the director of a DOD task force called a “treasure map” of the nation’s mineral resources.
At the event, James Bullion of the Defense Department’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, or TFBSO, shared the podium with USGS Director Marcia McNutt, who described a new remote-sensing technology that has made it possible, for the first time, she said, to map more than 70 percent of the country’s surface and identify potential high-value deposits of copper, gold, iron, and other minerals.
DOD officials and USGS scientists work as partners in this initiative with the Afghanistan government and scientists and engineers from the Afghan Ministry of Mines and the Afghan Geological Survey.
“The task force is a Defense Department organization charged to help spur and grow the private-sector economy in Afghanistan, … and clearly, the mineral and oil and gas extractive areas are critical to that effort,” Bullion said.
Since 2009, the DOD task force has funded work there by USGS, including the effort to operate, with help from NASA, an airborne instrument called a hyperspectral imager to map surface indicators of natural resources below Afghanistan’s rugged mountainous terrain.
“The work that the U.S. Geological Survey has done has been critical to the whole process,” Bullion said. “In essence, what they’ve done is built a treasure map for Afghanistan, which is full of these hidden mineral and oil and gas treasures.”
Scientists from USGS began working in Afghanistan in 2004, when the agency was asked to help rebuild the nation’s natural resource sector, McNutt said. The geological data USGS scientists found was 50 to 75 years old, originating from the late 1960s when a Soviet mission for about 10 years helped the Afghan government with geological mapping.
From August to October 2007, NASA contributed its mid-wing, long-range WB-57 aircraft to fly the USGS hyperspectral instrument over Afghanistan, mapping more than 70 percent of the country. In 2009, USGS and the DOD task force became partners and worked closely, Bullion said, to help to get the hyperspectral data into a format that mining companies could use to evaluate opportunities in the mineral sector.
“Hyperspectral data uses the reflectance of light and uses the fact that different minerals reflect light in different wavelength bands,” McNutt explained. “Every mineral has its own signature or fingerprint.”
Hyperspectral imaging characterizes minerals only on the surface of the Earth, not underground where the minerals are mined. The technology wouldn’t work well in countries where forests, grasses and soil cover the ground, but it’s perfect for Afghanistan. Over 50 million years, the slow-motion collision of Iran and Eurasian tectonic plates beneath Afghanistan formed rugged, rocky mountains out of what used to be mineral-laden subsurface rock.
The hyperspectral instrument “can be used in a place where there’s no vegetative cover, and Afghanistan happens to have almost no vegetation and it is resource-laden,” McNutt explained. “And because of plate tectonic properties, … it has been tectonically uplifted and tectonically unroofed to reveal at the surface the mother lode of resources.”
Over 43 days and 23 flights, USGS flew nearly 23,000 miles, collecting data that covered 170,000 square miles.
When compared with conventional ground mapping, McNutt added, hyperspectral technology has accelerated by decades the ability to identify the most promising areas for Afghan economic development.
In December, supported by the DOD task force, officials from Afghanistan’s Ministry of Mines opened tender processes, or auctions, for exploration and later exploitation of four project areas in the country.
The Badakhshan gold project is in Badakhshan province, the Zarkashan copper and gold project is in Ghazni province, the Balkhab copper project spans Sar-I-Pul and Balkh provinces, and the Shaida copper project is in Herat province.
Bids for the Balkhab project were opened July 24, and a preferred bidder will be announced when the evaluations are complete, ministry officials said in a statement.
At the Afghan embassy event, a USGS official characterized the value of Afghanistan’s mineral and other deposits.
“We have identified somewhere between 10 and 12 world-class copper, gold, iron ore [and] rare earth deposits that no one knew were there,” Jack Medlin, regional specialist for the Asia-Pacific region in the USGS international programs office, told the audience.
“In our 2007 publication, we gave an estimate of undiscovered mineral resources for the country, and … you can add up the tonnages of copper, lead, gold, iron, silver and so forth. … But this country has many more world-class mineral deposits than most countries in the world, if not more than any country,” he said.
That doesn’t mean it will be easy to turn these resources into national income, Medlin told American Forces Press Service.
Once a company wins a bid for an Afghan site, it will gather all information about the site, including the hyperspectral data and any geologic, geochemical and geophysical information, he said. It will also send its own geologists to the site to do detailed mapping and arrange for detailed airborne gravity and magnetic studies, Medlin said, which gives the company a subsurface three-dimensional picture of the ore deposit.
The company checks the absolute grade and tonnage of the ore deposit by drilling through the ore body, collecting a rock core and sending it to a chemical laboratory for analysis. If the results are positive, he added, the company creates a mine plan and determines the mining method.
“You’re talking about a capital investment of billions of dollars up front before you’ve even mined a pound of ore,” Medlin said. “It’s the reason companies want well-defined mining laws … and they want all the legal and regulatory requirements spelled out.”
In the Afghan mining brochure, Minister of Mines Wahidulla Shahrani describes major road and rail development and ongoing work on electric transmission lines, a favorable legal and fiscal regime, stable mineral laws and regulations, and physical security for working mines.
A mine protection unit has 1,500 security personnel at the Aynak copper mine in Logar province, according to the Ministry of Mines, and the Afghan government plans to increase the number of personnel to 7,000 for future mining projects.
At the embassy event, Afghanistan’s Ambassador to the United States Eklil Hakimi thanked DOD and the USGS for their help with the mining enterprise and discussed the potential economic benefits.
“The estimated direct revenue to be generated by royalties and taxes from the extractive industries could reach up to $1.5 billion by 2016 and exceed $3.7 billion by 2026,” Hakimi said, “and will become a major source of employment, with 165,000 jobs anticipated by 2016 and up to half a million by 2026.
“As we recently stressed at the Tokyo Conference [on Afghanistan in July],” he continued, “a peaceful future for Afghanistan rests in development and a sustainable economy, one that’s not dependent on international assistance and can provide jobs for the people.”
In response to a question from the audience, McNutt said the Afghans are eager to embrace modern geophysical techniques and technology and to be responsible for their own success.
“The word that I hear is [the Afghans] want to do this themselves,” the USGS director added. “They … are eager to take leadership and ownership of these projects and learn how to do it because they’re excited about rebuilding.”