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The 5 largest gold mines in the world – and why recycling is the future

Gold facts & figures Arnulf Hinkel, Finanzjournalist – 03.02.2023

What are the world’s largest gold mines? Where are they located and what is their annual production volume? And what is the future of gold mining in times of climate change?)

For the past 5,000 years, humans have been mining gold. Over half of the total volume of gold mined to date, however, has been extracted within the last 50 years. The past ten years has seen the amount of gold continuously exceeding 3,000 tons per year. In 2021, it was 3,560.7 tons – an amount thus far surpassed only in the record year 2018, when 3,652.6 tons of the precious metal were mined. In 2007, China replaced South Africa as the top gold-producing country and has since remained the undisputed world champion of gold production from mines, with output of up to 400 tons annually. The assumption that China therefore also has the most productive gold mines is, however, false. The world’s five largest gold mines are located elsewhere.

5th place: The Grasberg mine complex, Indonesia

Located in the Indonesian province of West New Guinea in the Pacific Ocean’s “Ring of Fire”, Grasberg is a large mine located at the extremely high altitude of 4,270 metres above sea level. Until a few years ago, Grasberg even topped the list of the world’s most productive gold mines. Operated by the Freeport McMoran Copper & Gold mining group together with the Indonesian government and the Rio Tinto group, the open pit and underground mines primarily extract copper, and gold only secondarily. Still, 26.4 tons of gold were mined at Grasberg in 2020, placing the mining complex fifth among the highest-yielding gold mines.

Based on the estimated remaining gold reserves in the deposit, the mine will likely maintain or even improve its ranking among the world’s top 5 for a long time to come. Experts believe that the deposit, discovered in 1936 by Dutch geologist Jean-Jacques Dozy, still contains up to 880 tons of minable gold. The Grasberg mining complex has brought both joy and sorrow to Indonesia. While its operator Freeport McMoran Copper & Gold is the country’s largest taxpayer, it is also its biggest polluter. Copper mining in particular releases large quantities of environmental toxins harmful to aquatic life, and the company complies neither with Indonesian nor with US environmental laws. Due to the continuous damage inflicted to flora and fauna, as well as frequent conflicts with the local population, the mining company is under constant criticism.

4th place: Pueblo Viejo, Dominican Republic

Located about 100 kilometres from the Dominican capital Santo Domingo in the province of Sanchez Ramirez, professional exploitation of the Pueblo Viejo mine started in 1975. It is considered the most productive gold mine in Latin America. For the first decades, the open pit mine was run by the Dominican mining company Rosario Dominicana, which abandoned the mine in 1999 under the price pressure of the then-weakening gold and silver prices alongside increasingly difficult extraction conditions. The gold mine lay idle for 13 years.

In 2012, the contract for the further development and exploitation of the Pueblo Viejo mine was awarded to a joint venture of the world’s two largest gold producers: Canadian mining company Barrick Gold with 17,500 employees and a market capitalisation of €36 billion, and the US company Newmont Goldcorp, which employs 16,400 people and has a market capitalisation of €37.6 billion. Barrick Gold holds 60 per cent of the mine shares, GoldCorp holds 40 per cent. The gold production volume in 2020 was 28 tons, rising to 30.6 tons in 2021 – volumes which will prove unsustainable in the long run. The 2019 annual report of Barrick Gold stated that the mining group estimated a remaining deposit of just under 186 tons of gold profitably extractable from the Pueblo Viejo mine.

3rd place: Olimpiada mine, Russia

Located in Krasnoyarsk Krai in Central Siberia, the Olimpiada gold mine is the most productive mine of the operator Polyus, by far the largest Russian mining group, which in turn is one of the five largest in the world. In 2020, a good 37 tons of gold were extracted at the mine, and 43.2 tons in 2021. Three refineries work at full capacity to process the gold mined at Olimpiada, which is exclusively extracted by open-cast mining. The operator Polyus currently assumes a good 1,360 tons of extant gold minable in the future, making Olimpiada one of the gold mines with the highest reserves expected to remain in operation for a long time to come.

2nd place: Carlin Gold Mine, Nevada

The Carlin gold mine in Nevada went into operation in 1965. The concept of “Carlin-type” gold deposits are named after the mine. The first large deposit of this type was discovered at the mine: sediment-hosted hydrothermal disseminated gold-pyrite impregnation deposits – or, more simply put, microscopically small deposits in which the particles of the precious metal are bound in carbonate rock, also called “invisible gold”. Deposits of this type are mainly found in Nevada and Utah, and the designation “Carlin-type” was soon applied to other gold mines in the region.

The original Carlin gold mine yielded a full 51 tons of gold in 2020 and only slightly less in 2021 at 49.2 tons. Operated both via open pit and underground, it measures roughly 2,000 x 500 metres. Owner Newport Mining Company estimates the Carlin mine reserves at about 120 tons after more than 50 years of active mining. Even if the original Carlin mine ceases operations in the foreseeable future, gold mining in the region will continue unabatedly across various Carlin-type mines. To this end, the two mining groups Newport Mining Company and Barrick Gold launched a joint venture in 2019, in which Barrick Gold continues to lead gold production in Nevada with a majority share of 61.5 per cent.

The Nevada Gold Complex created in the joint venture includes the original Carlin gold mine as well as the two Carlin-type mines “Goldstrike” and “Cortez”. Together, they represent the most productive mining complex in the world with an output of 115.8 tons in 2021. As it is the cumulative output of several mines, the Nevada Gold Complex is not ranked among the most productive individual mines. 

1st place: Muruntau mine, Uzbekistan

Commissioned in 1967, the Muruntau gold mine is located about 300 kilometres west of the Uzbek capital Tashkent in the gravel and sand desert of Kysylkum in Uzbekistan. It took nine years from the discovery of the gold deposits in 1958 to the start of mining, which has been running without interruption ever since. At first glance, the dimensions of the open-pit Muruntau mine are striking: The crater created by the extraction spans 3,500 x 2,500 metres in diameter, at roughly 600 metres deep. These unusual expanse is due to the nature of the gold deposits, located primarily in concentrated accumulations of quartz rock, so-called veins.

The output of the Muruntau mine was over 51 tons in 2010, increased to more than 62 tons by 2020 and 82 tonnes in 2021. The estimated remaining minable gold reserves as of the beginning of 2022 amount to around 4,000 tons, which should still secure the Muruntau mine a top spot in the ranking of the world’s most productive gold mines for the foreseeable future. These figures are based on information from the state-owned operator, the Navoi Mining & Metallurgy Kombinat. In the past, the Uzbek government has not exactly been transparent regarding information about the remaining gold deposits of the mine.

The future of classic gold mining

In its 2019 annual report, the US Geological Survey predicted that, if the production rate remains at the past years’ high levels of around 3,500 tons, gold deposits profitably mineable from an economic standpoint will likely be exhausted around the year 2035. This estimate this does not take into account possible developments such as more efficient technological processes that could be used to extract gold from previously unprofitable deposits, such as the sea, or to make mine production more cost-effective. After all, traditional mine production is becoming increasingly expensive: from 2016 to 2021 alone, the so-called AISC (All-In Sustaining Costs) rose 26 per cent to an average of 1,048 US$ per ounce of fine gold.

In addition to the operational costs of mining, the AISC also include administrative expenses and taxes, the capital input for mine maintenance and development, its capital costs and the exploration costs incurred. Although mining companies’ declared AISC can fluctuate annually, a clear upward trend is undeniable as well as logical, with easiest extraction areas of newly developed gold deposits exploited first to cover the considerable exploration costs as quickly as possible. Recycling as a means of gold production is thus becoming an increasingly important and attractive alternative to traditional mining, also with regard to a further more or less recent development.

Mining vs. recycling in the wake of climate change

The worldwide efforts to slow climate change and preserve the environment are sensibly supported by legal restrictions on gold mining. The Donlin Gold Project in Alaska is a recent example: discovered in 1988, its enormous gold deposits (estimated at around 800 tons) thus far remain untouched for environmental reasons. Fears about the possible impairment of surrounding waters, an important habitat for wild salmon, are dragging out the approval process.

The ecological footprint of classic gold mining is enormous. The high carbon emissions alone play a major role: the production of one kilo of gold releases up to 16 tons of carbon, even with state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly technologies. Recycling – and more specifically urban mining, which is still far from its full capacity – is therefore becoming more and more important. When gold is extracted through recycling, carbon emissions are less than one-twentieth of traditional gold production. It was against this backdrop that the social media campaign #GoldPhoneChallenge was launched in 2022 by the issuer of Xetra-Gold, Deutsche Börse Commodities GmbH, to raise awareness for urban mining, i.e. the recovery of gold from electronic waste. In Germany alone the estimate for old, unused smartphones that contain gold and rare earths is around 200 million. However, this was not the only motivation behind the #GoldPhoneChallenge.

The increasingly important role of human rights and working conditions 

For the gold bars which serve to physically back the Xetra-Gold bearer bonds, Deutsche Börse Commodities aims to source recycled gold whenever possible. It is also committed to full traceability in terms of place and conditions of the mining. In addition to large gold mines like those mentioned above, there are countless artisanal mining locations, some of them in conflict regions where even basic human and labour rights are not met.

At the end of the #GoldPhoneChallenge, Deutsche Börse Commodities donated €50,000 to the German-based Earthbeat Foundation to support its projects, among them “Heartbeat Honey”. Assisted by the Earthbeat Foundation, the project works to support up to 3,500 people to leave gold mining and earn a living by extracting “liquid gold” – high-quality honey – far away from the gold mines that are harmful both to their health and the environment.

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