Australia’s resources sector is a global leader in the supply of critical and other essential minerals to the world. Mineral exploration, development and production are major contributors to Australia’s wealth, helping improve living standards here and around the globe.
Australia’s national inventory of mineral resources is captured in the annual Australia’s Identified Mineral Resources (AIMR) publication. This report draws on more than 40 years of data to reveal trends in reserve estimates, resource estimates, and mine production.
It provides an evidence base to support government policy and contributes to the sustainable development of our nation’s mineral resources, ensuring continued benefit to Australians.
From powering our homes and industry to developing new technologies, the world needs our mineral resources. The 2021 edition of AIMR reaffirms Australia can meet this demand.
In the most testing of times, Australia’s mining sector proved to be a lifeline for the economy in 2020, with strong mineral exports valued at $231 billion and increased reserves and resources recorded in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some highlights from the 2021 edition of AIMR include:
With an expanding resources base, our world rankings remain strong for key critical minerals which drive our modern economy. Globally, Australia has the largest identified economic resources of zirconium and titanium. We are second in the world for cobalt, lithium, tungsten, and vanadium, closely followed by niobium and rare earth elements, ranking third and fourth, respectively.
Continued growth in Australia’s inventory is expected to follow, drawing from Geoscience Australia's pre-competitive programs, like the $225 million Exploring for the Future program. This program has and will continue to identify new pipelines of resources that are essential for building the secure mineral supply chains needed by Australia and its partners, now and in the future.
Australia’s strong minerals sector enables our nation to support our global partners in this time of COVID-19 recovery, and geopolitical uncertainty.
With a strong export outlook for Australia’s resources, the mining sector will continue to be the backbone of a resilient Australian economy and contribute to our national security.
The sector can continue to count on our government’s strong backing.
The Hon Keith Pitt MP
Minister for Resources and Water
Australia’s rich and varied minerals endowment has attracted explorers for many thousands of years and today we walk in the footsteps of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders—Australia’s original mappers and miners.
In 2020, Australia was a top five global producer for 20 mineral commodities including bauxite, cobalt, gold, lithium, iron ore, mineral sands, nickel and rare earths, validating the reputation of its robust and world-leading mining industry. This is a significant increase from 15 commodities the previous year. For some commodities, the increased contribution to global supply can be attributed to local mine development (e.g., antimony production from Costerfield, Victoria) but for others, the rise in ranking likely reflects the relative strength of Australia’s mining sector in 2020 compared to other nations.
During this period, Australia’s mining exports (excluding petroleum products) were worth $231 billion1, the sector accounted for 12% of gross domestic product2 and employed some 264,000 people3, with many more employed by related industries. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic leading to a range of health and movement restrictions across Australia in 2020, mineral exploration was up 6% on 2019 to $2,809 million with gold and iron ore leading the way. Indeed, in 2020, Australia hosted the world’s largest economic resources of gold, iron ore, lead, nickel, rutile, silver, uranium, zinc and zircon.
Iron ore continued to be the lead mineral export commodity for Australia in 2020, comprising almost 51%, or $117 billion, of total mineral export earnings from 867 Mt of iron ore exports4. Australia is also the world’s largest producer of iron ore, providing 38% of world supply, and has the largest share of global resources, accounting for 29% of the world’s economic inventory.
Black coal also continued to be an important contributor (23%) to Australia’s mineral export earnings, contributing almost $54 billion. Metallurgical coal, which is essential to steel production, made up the bulk (61%; $33 billion) of coal earnings.
Gold was the most sought after commodity in 2020 accounting for 46% of all Australian mineral exploration expenditure. In 2020, gold production increased to a record of 328 tonnes, up from 325 tonnes in 2019. Over the past six years, the high price of the precious metal has resulted in a new ‘gold rush’ with exploration expenditure reaching a new record of $1,316 million in 20205. As well as record prices and exploration expenditure, this sustained interest has led to the upgrade of large tonnages of gold resources in 2020 to economic categories. As a result, Australia’s national inventory (11,101 t) is world’s largest, comprising 20% of global economic resources. Gold accounted for 11% of Australian mineral and metal export earnings in 2020 with an export value of more than $25 billion.
Industry activity significantly increased Australian resources of potash, an essential fertiliser mineral. Recoverable, economically viable resources of potash were 42.5 Mt at the end of 2020, up 21% from 35 Mt in 2019. Geoscience Australia’s 2013 salt lake study6 stimulated potash exploration in Australia and first commercial domestic production, achieved in late 2021, will reduce reliance on imports and strengthen national food security.
Australia’s critical minerals7 sector is growing in response to the increasing global need for secure supply of these vital and strategic elements. Commodities such as lithium, cobalt, vanadium, graphite and rare earths are essential for the global energy transition to low-carbon technologies such as wind, solar and energy storage batteries. In 2020, Australia retained its position as the world’s top lithium producer (49%) and was also a top five producer for antimony (1%), cobalt (4%), ilmenite (9%), magnesite (3%), manganese ore (12%), rare earths (8%), rutile (26%), tantalum (4%) and zircon (21%).
Industry has responded to the increased demand for critical minerals with additional exploration and resource definition, leading to significant increases in economic inventories for many critical minerals, such as cobalt (up 7%), vanadium (23%), antimony (24%), tungsten (43%) and platinum group elements (185%).
Going forward, Australia is well placed to supply a range of critical minerals with the world’s largest identified economic resources of rutile and zircon and the second largest of cobalt, ilmenite, lithium, tungsten and vanadium. Australia is highly prospective for additional critical mineral opportunities and flagship programs such as Exploring for the Future8, led by Geoscience Australia, are supporting industry to find new discoveries that will help ensure the pipeline of projects needed to meet world demand.
Geoscience Australia and its predecessors have prepared the annual assessment of Australia’s mineral resources since 1975. Thus, this publication—Australia’s Identified Mineral Resources (AIMR)—is able to draw on over 40 years of data to reveal trends in reserve estimates, resource estimates and mine production over a range of periods. This assessment also provides useful long-term indicators of potential resource life and future supply capability, including for many of the critical minerals listed in Australia’s 2022 Critical Minerals Strategy9. AIMR is designed to assist government policy decision making, enable mineral sector program planning, and contribute to the sustainable development of Australia’s mineral resources.
AIMR presents Australia’s Ore Reserves at operating mines (Table 1) and all deposits (Table 2), also longer-term estimates of the nation’s Identified Mineral Resources (Table 3) and changes in resource estimates from the previous year (Table 4). It is also of interest to note Australia’s ranking as a global source of minerals (Table 5) as many countries are dependent on reliable supply from Australia for their own economies.
The estimates in AIMR 2021 of Australia’s Ore Reserves and Mineral Resources are as at 31 December 2020, reflecting the status of the national inventory after almost a year of impact from the COVID-19 pandemic. The data in this and future reports will, therefore, inform government and industry going forward when assessing the short and long-term effects of this health and economic emergency on Australia’s mining sector.
The data in the national minerals inventory is sourced primarily from published company reports but includes some confidential and historical data. The category of highest geological and economic confidence in the national inventory is Economic Demonstrated Resources (EDR) which, in essence, combines the Joint Ore Reserves Committee (JORC) Code categories of Proved and Probable Ore Reserves and most of Measured and Indicated Mineral Resources.
Mine production figures are sourced from the Office of the Chief Economist at the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, state government publications and company reports. World rankings of Australia’s mineral resources have been calculated mainly using information published by the United States Geological Survey (USGS).
1 Office of the Chief Economist (Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources), Resources and Energy Quarterly, December 2021, historical spreadsheets.
2 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian National Accounts, National Income, Expenditure and Product. Cat. No. 5206.0. Figure calculated using mining exports (excluding petroleum products) of $231 billion and Gross Domestic Product, Current Prices, Table 1 ($1,969 billion).
3 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Labour Force, Australia, Detailed. Cat. No. 6291.0.55.001. Table 4.
4 See Footnote 1.
5 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Quarterly Statistics, Mineral and Petroleum Exploration Australia March 2021.
6 Mernagh, T.P., Bastrakov, E.N., Clarke, J.D.A., de Caritat, P., English, P.M., Howard, F.J.F., Jaireth, S., Magee, J.W., McPherson, A.A., Roach, I.C., Schroder, I.F., Thomas, M., Wilford, J.R. 2013. A Review of Australian Salt Lakes and Assessment of their Potential for Strategic Resources. Record 2013/039. Geoscience Australia, Canberra.
7 A critical mineral is a metal, gas or mineral that is essential for the functioning of modern technologies, economies or national security and there is a risk of disruption to its supply chains.
Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources
Minister for Resources and Water: Senator the Hon Keith Pitt
Secretary: Mr David Fredericks
Chief Executive Officer: Dr James Johnson
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Senior, A., Britt, A., Pheeney, J., Summerfield, D., Hughes, A., Hitchman, A., Cross, A, Sexton, M. and Teh M, Geoscience Australia 2022. Australia’s Identified Mineral Resources 2021. Geoscience Australia, Canberra.