EXPLORATORY VENTURES

Kazakhstan 2015 | MINING & ENERGY | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Tony Thornton, General Director of SRK Consulting (Kazakhstan), on the national mining sector, new potential commodities, and exploration opportunities.

Tony Thornton
BIOGRAPHY
Tony Thornton is General Director of SRK Consulting (Kazakhstan), and leads the SRK practice office in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Prior to joining SRK, he had a career as a mining engineer, specializing in developing mines from greenfield exploration through to full production, working on commodities including gold, diamonds, tin, copper and coal. He has managed mining operations in Zambia, Guinea, Angola, Ghana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, USA, South Africa, Russia, and Kazakhstan. Tony is a British citizen, but permanently resides in Almaty.

SRK has over 50 offices on six continents. What is the significance of your Kazakhstan practice within SRK's global portfolio?

It is very much part of SRK Consulting's image to be able to deliver world-class expertise in a local context. Opening the office in Almaty was a direct response to this, to provide SRK's services to clients in Kazakhstan and Central Asia, who otherwise might have been reluctant to deal with consultants based in London or Moscow for instance. We started off in 2010 in a small office with seven staff. Since then, we have grown considerably to 26 staff, with expertise in Geology, Mining Engineering, and Environmental Science, as well as Geotechnical Engineering. That is really a reflection of the needs of the clients we are dealing with. When we started the business, we had to bring in skills from other SRK offices around the world, but now we have started filling those skill gaps with local engineers and scientists. This has been an involved process, as we have developed the skills of our local employees by having them work in SRK offices abroad. Initially, we were focused on geological exploration, and we are still seeing some work of that nature, but now we are doing a lot more with established mining companies in Kazakhstan that want our help to make their business more efficient, to bring in technical expertise that they cannot find in-house, or to help with technical undertakings that they are simply unfamiliar with. It is a growing trend for us now that we are expected to be providers of technical excellence.

Kazakhstan has vast resources, untapped to a large degree. Which commodities have the most potential for development?

I think the base metal industry has great potential here, and it is already well established, so there are the skills and the understanding of that aspect of mining. Uranium is very important as well, despite the temporary cooling of demand. Gold has problems at the moment, but there are significant gold operations and resources here. The whole country has only been 15% explored during the Soviet period, and there is still a massive area that remains to be explored for all commodities—geologically it is promising, there could be anything there.

The mining sector in Kazakhstan is dominated by big companies; what room is there for smaller players to get into exploration?

There is plenty of opportunity and with the lifting of the moratorium, there are opportunities for small exploration companies to get engaged, but there is no funding for them at them moment, or anywhere in the world for that matter. But in terms of strategy, it is something that this country needs, because it is only through small-scale exploration companies that you get enough boots on the ground and people into the far corners of the country. Major exploration and mining companies have a very different agenda, for instance, an established gold miner would be looking for a minimum of 100 tons of gold in the ground, that is their threshold and they are not looking for anything smaller, they are not going to look closely at each and every indicator. Rather they are looking for their specific targets. So smaller deposits that would be ideal for smaller mining companies are just not being found through these means. On the other hand, a junior exploration company is looking for anything and they will turn over plenty of stones looking for it. Juniors are facing a high attrition rate around the world. The only way to get sustainable funding now as a junior company is to have an excellent project on hand, and an excellent track record.