Mining and Sustainability

Connor Olson is currently a senior at the College of Charleston studying Political Science (with a concentration in Public Policy) with a Geology Minor. He will pursue a master’s in Mineral and Energy Economics at the Colorado School of Mines following graduation.  In fact, this semester, he is even completing school online from Zambia. Yes, Zambia! This is because he is interning full-time with Silk Bridges Group to support their operations in the country while finishing his last semester remotely. Silk Bridges Group is a consulting and venture capital company that invests in small to mid-sized mines and mineral processing plants in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The company invests in mining operations that work with minerals and metals required for clean energy technology, such as copper, cobalt, and zinc. I interviewed Connor to see how this internship experience may help Cougars better understand what sustainability means in the context of multinational mining for rare earth minerals that are needed for a transition to renewable forms of energy.  


How do you define/understand sustainability?  What courses, events, or professors at CofC have informed this understanding? 


For Olson, sustainability is about making sure you’re not using up too many resources. However, he says he is frustrated that corporations often define sustainability simply from the checkout counter to the landfill. His background is in mining, oil, and gas, and he believes you have to consider sustainability from where it starts, in the mine, and its transportation all the way to the landfill. This is known as the well-to-tank approach, which conner defines as “an emissions factor, also known as upstream or indirect emissions, is an average of all the GHG emissions released into the atmosphere from the production, processing, and delivery of a fuel or energy vector.” “People don’t often consider how sustainable the practices are before it enters their grocery bags. 


Connor Olson says that his Geology professor, Dr. Norm Levine, significantly impacted how he views sustainability. Dr. Levine is his advisor and has allowed Connor to take on several independent research projects. He mentioned one of his research projects on mineral resource development in Africa. While working on this project, Olson analyzed how the electrical grid, power, and conflict develop in Africa. Olson states that conflict, specifically related to mining, doesn’t cross borders and has changed how he viewed sustainability.

Additionally, a separate research study he conducted on fracking allowed him to view the legal process that allows for this type of resource extraction. He came across a paper about new methods and technologies to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions while developing more oil. Olson said these projects really sparked his interest in the mining industry, leading to his current internship. 


How did you initially get involved with sustainability? 

When he first started at the College, he wanted to do something with Energy Law until he decided to look into alternatives and found an interest in the academic and political side of mining and oil. 


This interest eventually resulted in him being the Business Development Intern for the Silk Bridges Group in Zambia. Olson explained that Silk Bridges is a “US-based venture capital company that invests in small to midsized mining companies especially in Sub-saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America.” He says that the company mainly focuses on the minerals and metals needed for the Green Revolution. The head of business development with Silk Bridges, Nicholas Beardsley, is a CofC alumn, and Connor connected with him over LinkedIn. Although the pandemic has presented numerous challenges, Olson was able to accept his current full-time internship in Zambia because all of his courses are online this semester. 


In addition to his internship with the Silk Bridges Group, Olson is also interning part-time with the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment, a joint center of Columbia Law School and the Earth Institute at Columbia University.  He is the Operations Assistant Intern and works for the energy and mining team. He expressed that learning about the politics of the extractive industries and how to make them more sustainable has been fascinating and eye-opening for him. 


Can you explain how mining relates to sustainability and how your work focuses on the five pillars of sustainability–the social, environmental, economic, political, and personal? 


Olson says that “At its core, sustainability begins with mining, despite what many people believe.” He argues that even if recycling becomes 100% efficient, we are still going to need more natural resources because “you always need more resources as the population grows.” We also discussed the social aspect of sustainability, and Olson told me about a sustainability topic in mining called the “Social License to Operate.” He said that this deals with getting local communities’ approval for mining projects, especially when visiting diverse communities worldwide. He says it is vital to communicate with these communities and get their approval by providing employment and building relationships. He said that projects in the “closure phase” are carefully monitored, and they attempt to restore the environment as best they can. One of Olson’s projects with Columbia also analyzes how countries can benefit economically from oil and gas mining projects.  

This article does not cover everything relating to sustainability and mining, but I hope it gives you a better idea of how it connects to the five pillars. If this topic interests you because you follow the mining industry or have never considered if it can be sustainable, keep an eye out for Connor’s articles on our blog, Synergies, and in our upcoming newsletter issues for The Resilient Advocate.


Cover photy by Pixabay from Pexels.

About the author:

Isabel Crews is studying International Studies, French, and Communication at the College. Her endeavors with Zero Waste at her high school and her passion for sustainability led her to the Center for Sustainable Development. She volunteered as a Bonner Leader Assistant and later took the Editorial Content Intern role during the Summer of 2020. As the current Editorial Content Intern, she hopes to continue learning about sustainability and coordinating events to educate and engage the greater campus community. She also hopes to inspire others to live sustainably and get involved in the campus and the Charleston community. Outside of her involvement at the Center for Sustainable Development, Isabel spends her time volunteering with Bonner, discussing social justice, writing articles for Her Campus, exploring Charleston and biking throughout the city.