The environmental impacts of iron ore: pioneering a lifecycle analysis model

The environmental impacts of our iron ore mining, as the very first step in steel production, are clearly important in understanding the sustainability profile of steel.

Our customers are keenly aware of this need and are looking to better understand the contribution of iron ore mining to the overall footprint of steel products.

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Several carmakers, for example, are setting up schemes to evaluate the maturity of their suppliers when it comes to sustainability, and major certification programmes in the construction sector are rewarding products with visible data on their raw material extraction stage.

But iron ore environmental knowledge has been limited by the availability of reliable data. Until now, our company’s lifecycle analysis (LCA) studies – key to understanding the potential environmental impact of a product throughout its entire lifecycle – have used general data from the mining sector. This data is provided by consultants or purchased databases, but can be unreliable.

That’s why we embarked on a pioneering project to conduct the first lifecycle assessment of our iron ore operations – launching a study at our Peña Colorada mine in Mexico, which produces and sells pellets.

The assessment, developed in compliance with ISO 14040/44, produced a software model to provide environmental indicators beyond CO2 emissions – which are already well reported – including primary energy demand, global warming potential, acidification (mainly caused by combustion processes, in particular coal power plants and on-site diesel engines), eutrophication (caused by phosphates and nitrates emissions), and photochemical ozone creation.

The resulting data covers both direct impacts (process) and upstream-related impacts including energy production. The software model was designed to be re-used and developed for other simulations to help build a lifecycle assessment for the company’s entire iron ore operations.

Even at this early stage, the study has provided useful insight into the LCA of our iron ore operations. For example, looking at the LCA of hot rolled coil – a typical steel product – we know that pellet production makes a relatively small contribution to global warming, primary energy demand and the creation of ozone (respectively 3.16%, 4% and 3%). But, for acidification and eutrophication, the share is likely to be higher than what may have been assumed (8.5% and 10.9%).

Achieving LCA for the first time in mining is a major accomplishment because it paves the way for building a complete environmental profile of our steel products and how our mining operations factor into this – something we expect our customers will increasingly want to know.