McCarthy, P L, 2002.

in Proceedings of ACG I nternational Seminar on Deep and
High Stress Mining, Perth

Feasibility Studies and Economic Models
For Deep Mines
By P L McCarthy


Feasibility studies for deep mining projects must address the particular risks that arise in that
environment. These include:

• Increased geological risk due to sparse data density.
• Increased capital risk due to higher cost of establishing the mining operation.
• Increased technical risk due to the challenging environment for materials handling,
ventilation, services, employees and ground control.

Feasibility studies for such projects must show how each of these risks can be managed to a level that
will provide sufficient comfort for project finance to proceed. Economic models must present a
realistic range of operating outcomes so that the commercial implications of those outcomes can be
properly assessed. A rigorous process of peer review and audit is essential.


A “deep” mine is one that presents challenges in evaluation,
finance, construction and subsequent operation through a
combination of absolute depth (ventilation difficulties,
increased travel times etc), increasing rock stress and seismicity
(which may occur at relatively shallow levels), or
inaccessibility for economic geological assessment (which
depends on the thickness and continuity of the potentially
economic mineralisation). In general, deep mines challenge the
existing technology and present technical risks that discourage

In the Victorian quartz (gold) mines of the 1860s, “deep
sinking” referred to depths around 300m. By the turn of that
century, Bendigo (1600m) and Ballarat West (1000m) were
among the world’s deepest mines. Ventilation and dewatering
had become difficult, but rock stress was apparently not a
problem at the scale and rate of mining that applied. Twenty
years ago, Mount Isa Mines and North Broken Hill were
pushing the technological boundaries with depth in Australia,
but could not be compared with the challenges of the Kolar
mines in Karnataka or of the Witwatersrand, where Western
Deep Levels reached 3500m in 1977.

In each of the leading mining countries of today, Canada,
Australia and South Africa, a different context for deep mining
has developed. South African gold mining generally enjoys a
favourable stress gradient and very predictable geology, so that
absolute mining depths are greatest. There, the leading-edge
technical competencies relate to deep shaft sinking, narrow-
vein stoping on flat dips, hoisting and ventilation. In Australia,

1. Managing Director, AMC Consultants Pty Ltd, 19/114 William Street,
Melbourne Vic 3000. E-mail:
mining methods based on decline access provide labour
productivities nearly double those in Canada, where shaft
access is used with otherwise similar technology. Decline
methods become economically challenged at depths
approaching 1000m, where coincidentally the management of
rock stress often becomes a serious issue. Prediction and
management of stress and seismicity is a major theme of other
papers in this International Seminar and is not taken further in
this paper. A useful summary of the topic is given in Turner

All feasibility studies for new mines must address the technical
and commercial risks and present a scenario that attracts the
required finance. For deep mines, the size and/or grade of the
orebody must be sufficient to make the project robust under a
reasonable range of technical outcomes. Deep mineralisation
that is marginally attractive is unlikely to be developed.

The Feasibility Study Process

The feasibility study process usually proceeds from
“Conceptual” studies, through a series of increasingly better-
defined “Prefeasibility” studies, until at last a “Feasibility”
study provides sufficient justification for approval by the
owners for the project to proceed and by the financiers to lend
the funds required. At any step along the way, unfavourable
conclusions arising from this process may lead to the project
being shelved, abandoned or sold. Each step requires the results
to be sufficiently encouraging to justify proceeding to, and
funding, the next step.

The challenges to the study team change significantly as the
project proceeds through this process. In the early stages, a
study may be used as a basis for acquiring exploration areas or
to justify exploration funding. While the investment risk may
be small, there is a major risk that a good project might be
written off prematurely. The proportion of early-stage
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exploration projects that survive to become mines is very small,
so the penalty for misidentifying the good one is not only the
lost opportunity but also the cumulative wasted cost of
evaluating the tens or hundreds sub-economic opportunities that
preceded it.

It is acceptable for early studies to be based on very limited
information or speculative assumptions in the absence of hard
data. The study is directed at the potential of the property and a
lack of information is not, at this stage, a reason for
conservatism. No-one should expect the study to be definitive,
and this should be made clear through the use of appropriate
disclaimers in the report.

As the project proceeds through Prefeasibility status, the
purpose of studies is usually to justify further substantial
exploration and development expenditure. Sometimes the aim
is to attract a buyer or joint venture partner or to provide a basis
for a major underwriting to raise the required risk capital.
Sometimes a Prefeasibility study may be prepared (in full or in
part) by potential purchasers as part of the due diligence
process. Eventually, the aim will be to justify funding a final
Feasibility Study.

The results of a Prefeasibility study may be the first hard
project information which is seen by corporate decision makers.
There is a risk that the findings are committed to memory so
that it becomes difficult to dislodge them with subsequent
information. In such cases, the Prefeasibility study becomes the
real decision point, with the subsequent Feasibility study being
seen by management as a necessary step along a path that has
already been irrevocably committed. Clearly, this build-up of
corporate momentum can lead to poor investment decisions.

For these reasons, the conclusions of a Prefeasibility study
should be heavily qualified wherever necessary. Assumptions
should be realistic rather than optimistic because it is very
difficult to bring management and markets back to reality in the
event that the final feasibility study is significantly less

The final Feasibility study is usually based on the most
attractive technical alternatives for the project, from those
evaluated through earlier studies. The aim is to identify and
quantify the technical, commercial and environmental risks and
opportunities and to present the relevant information with back
up material in a concise and accessible way. The study will be
used in different ways by investors, regulators and the
community in deciding whether the project should proceed and
on what terms. If it proceeds, the Feasibility study will provide
a basis for detailed design and construction.

What is Bankable?

The term “Bankable Feasibility Study” is in widespread use. To
the engineers preparing a feasibility study, the term “bankable”
only refers to the technical completeness and the level of detail
contained in the report that they are preparing. Whether a bank
will lend against it depends on the inherent merits of the
project. A bank may be satisfied with the technical work and
the project economics sufficient to lend 60% of future
development cost where the sponsors are seeking 80%. Despite
the accuracy of the engineering, in this case the sponsors have
not got what they required. Daley (1990) argued that engineers
and project sponsors should avoid the term “Bankable”.

The robustness of the project is tested by its cash flow
coverage, typically not less than 160% to 200% of the amount
required to service the debt. There will also be a debt ceiling, or
limit on the debt/equity ratio, which may run as high as 80%.

A bank typically requires that the loan facility can be fully
repaid within the period of depletion of the Proved Ore Reserve
estimated in the Feasibility study, as defined in Australia by the
JORC Code (1999). A mine life (Proved and Probable Ore
Reserves) at least twice the projected loan life is usually
required. Competition between lenders at certain points in the
business cycle may relax these requirements, with Measured
and Indicated Mineral Resources being allowed in a production
schedule. However, Inferred Resources are not allowed by
banks to support project finance.

Project finance is initially secured against the assets of the
owners, until a bank completion test has been satisfied. The
owners are usually anxious to satisfy the bank test as it frees
them to undertake other corporate activities. The completion
test typically requires:

• 3 to 12 months of design level production.
• 90% of design throughput.
• 95% of design metallurgical recovery.
• Specified plant operating cost (usually up to 110% of
feasibility study estimate is allowed).
• Products on specification.
• Mining to plan (ie, not high grading).
• Nothing from geological exposures to suggest that
budgets will not be met.

Gaining Access to the Deposit

The first problem in deep mine studies is that geological
information is expensive to obtain. It may be prohibitively
expensive to establish ore reserves from surface drilling alone.
Figure 1 shows the cost per tonne of ore reserve for drilling out
a gold deposit from surface on a 25 x 25m grid, assuming four
intercepts from each parent hole, and that every intercept is an
ore intercept.

Figure 1 - Cost of Drilling Ore Reserves from Surface

0 1000 2000 3000 4000 5000
Depth (m)


2m thick
5m thick
10m thick
20m thick

This high cost of information applies not just to the global
estimation of tonnes and grade, but to understanding the local
variability of grade, thickness, dip, geotechnical character and
so on. There is usually very little sample available for
metallurgical characterisation and test work. In some cases, the
deep deposit is a continuation or repetition of mineralisation
previously mined at higher levels, so that a better understanding
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of these matters can be inferred from limited drill data.
However, it may prove impractical to promote the resource
category beyond Inferred from surface drilling alone.

To advance beyond surface drilling requires underground
access for drilling and trial mining. The options for initial
access are by decline (as at Newcrest’s Telfer Deeps project) or
by vertical shaft (as proposed for the Gwalia Deeps project).
With current truck technology, a vertical exploration shaft
becomes attractive beyond about 1000m. The cost of access is
about $30,000 per vertical metre for a decline, more for a
conventionally sunk shaft. There is usually little cost saving in
reducing the internal diameter of a conventionally sunk shaft
below 5.5m, and larger diameters are usually required for
equipment and services. Smaller diameters can be economically
blind-bored, but failures have been frequent and a meticulous
geotechnical appraisal is required.

The technological limit for shaft sinking and hoisting is
currently about 2800m, well below the depths for “deep
mining’ being contemplated in Australia. The technical
challenges for deeper sub-mine development and ventilation are
unlikely to arise here in the medium future and can be
addressed by current South African technology when they do.
The challenges of stress and seismicity are already with us.

For a resource at 1200m depth, the decision to proceed
underground is likely to involve expenditure of at least $60M
for access and drilling before the next level of feasibility study
can be undertaken. One attraction of decline development is
that it may be possible to break the expenditure up into two or
more phases of development and drill appraisal, with the option
of suspending work if the underground drilling does not support
the original interpretation.

As an example of this process, Bendigo Mining NL expended
about $30M on geological assessment and the first phase of
decline development, and is currently spending about $50M on
further decline development, drilling and bulk sampling to
establish the information required to support a final Feasibility
Study. Thereafter, project finance options can be assessed. The
New Bendigo mineralisation lies beneath old workings,
generally below 600m down to an arbitrary 1500m limit.
Despite a resource potential well in excess of 20 Mt within
these limits, the configuration of the mineralisation and the
extremely nuggetty gold distribution make it difficult to
establish mineral resources. An Inferred Resource of 1.8 Mt has
been published based on the work to date.

Resource Evaluation

The thickness, dip, continuity and spatial relationship of ore
zones, the regularity of wall contacts, strength of ore and wall
rocks are all critical inputs to planning. These are drawn from
the resource model and directly from the geologist’s knowledge
of the deposit gained during the data-gathering and modelling
phase. Some parts of the resource may be impossible to mine;
others may be located too far from development to be
economic; others may suffer severe dilution.

A sectional interpretation by an experienced geologist at one or
more possible cut-off grades is usually the first step in
preparing the resource model. This sectional interpretation will
include features inferred from the drill logs that would not be
generated by any grade interpolation software. The geologist’s
experience tells him or her how variable the ore boundaries are
in this type of deposit and what shapes the variations might
take. When the sections are linked and wireframed, then
checked and corrected in plan and back to section, the resulting
three-dimensional outlines can be used to validate the grade-
interpolation process.

The above procedure is usually necessary regardless of whether
or not the limits of the mineralisation envelope have been
interpreted (at a sub-economic cut-off) and wireframed as limits
to the grade block model. This is because the shape of the
mineralisation envelope may be quite different from the
boundary of the economic material.

It may be acceptable to let the grade interpolation process
determine limits of economic mineralisation in large deposits to
be mined by caving methods, where the edge inaccuracies of
the model become insignificant. For other cases, the geologist
must form a view about the spatial limits of ore at the chosen
cut-off grade, and must be prepared to model the ore
boundaries realistically. To do this, the geologist needs to
understand the style of mineralisation and to be able to infer
irregularities, including structural dislocations such as faults, at
a scale smaller than the drill spacing.

The ability to “think ahead” to the scale of variation that will
apply during mining is crucial in deep mines, because the
information available is unlikely to reveal this variation
directly. All orebodies appear easy (and cheap) to mine when
the data is sparse; reality is usually a disappointment.

The mining engineer will design stopes which have geometric
limitations dictated by geotechnical factors, the economic
spacing and length of production blastholes, or the need to
combine blocks of “ore” and “waste” into mineable units.
When these shapes are overlaid on the resource model, the
resource grade is diluted and some of the resource is lost. The
resource model will contain internal dilution according to the
model block size, based on an assumed Selective Mining Unit
that may or may not accord with the engineer’s proposed

In an underground mine, levels are planned on the basis of
relatively coarse-spaced drilling. Stopes are designed and then
mined with limited flexibility for change. Pods of ore not
identified by drilling will be lost, even if they are expected
statistically to be present. When the data are limited, techniques
such as Conditional Simulation can be useful in defining the
range of possible variations in the deposit, provided the mining
implications of each simulation cycle are considered
independently. After all, it will not be the average of the
simulations that is eventually mined, but one of the possible

Predicting Mining Dilution and Mining

In most underground mine feasibility studies, sensitivity
analysis shows that the commercial outcome is most sensitive
to head grade. Realisation of head grade depends on the quality
of geological data-gathering and modelling and also on the
prediction of mining dilution. Geostatisticians sometimes claim
that a resource model inherently contains an appropriate
allowance for internal and edge dilution. This is an obvious
fallacy; the dilution estimate must derive from mining and
geotechnical considerations. Key variables are:

• The mining method and size of equipment;
• Grade variability at the resource boundary;
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• Ore width, dip, geometry and continuity;
• Grade control method and proposed mining rate, and
• Geotechnical design criteria, including the stress and
seismicity environment, hydraulic radius, rock quality
and pillar dimensions.

The availability of digital resource models has led some
practitioners to calculate diluted grades based on an assumed
average thickness of overbreak. For example, 0.5 m on each
wall of a 3 m wide stope represents a 33% tonnage increase.
Grades from assays or composites within this envelope are used
to interpolate a diluent grade. Caution is needed, as the search
ellipsoid used for “ore” may have already considered this
material, or conversely the grade of this material may be related
to the sample grades lying outside the diluent boundaries in
“ore” or “waste”.

In practice, stope overbreak usually takes an arcuate shape,
deepest at the mid-point of the stope and minimal at the pillar
sides. In large open stopes (~20 m spans), the “normal” arch
may be 3 m deep at mid-span. If drill assays outside the stope
(or ore) limits are statistically analysed to calculate diluent
grade, then this shape must be allowed for. The shape of
overbreak may be predicted using techniques such as the
Radius Factor (Dunne and Pakalnis, 1996). In deep mines,
modelling of the stress regime around stopes is likely to be
instructive. In some fields such as the Yilgarn (Lee et al, 2001),
there may be very good predictive information about the likely
magnitude of the virgin stress field. Even so, local variations
between rock units can be critically important.

Where there is a sharp geological cut-off between ore and
waste, simple geometric analysis, assuming dilution at zero
grade, is often satisfactory. Where the boundary is gradational
(a flat grade-tonnage curve at the chosen cut-off) then some
credit should be given for values in the diluent.

Dilution is greatest in narrow ore zones with sharp contacts,
and least in massive ore with gradational boundaries. Dilution
from backfill may be significant. If pillars are to be extracted
against freestanding, cemented fill in open stopes, then the
stability and likely frequency of fill failure must be considered,
even if rigorous control procedures are in place. In cut-and-fill
mining, more dilution may be experienced if the miners are
paid on a piecework (tonnage) contract because they may dig
deeper into the fill floor.

Dilution can be reduced over time as experience is gained and
the mining method is optimised. Decisions about the level of
stope-wall support using cable dowels are based on cost-benefit
analysis, and will affect dilution. It should be obvious that
experience of dilution at shallow levels has limited relevance to
deep mining.

The proportion of a resource that can be recovered is typically
70 to 90% of the material available after removing
“inaccessible” or uneconomic blocks and shaft pillars. The
higher recoveries can be justified using more selective mining
methods in ore of higher unit value. With all methods, some
resource that would otherwise be classified as ore will be left in
pillars or abandoned due to premature ground failure.

Pillar recovery may be justified as part of the ongoing mining
process or as a retreating salvage operation at the end of mine
life. In most studies, resources remain “open” along strike or at
depth, so that it may appear that any error in the recovery
estimate will be rendered inconsequential over time. However,
it is critical to estimate mining recovery accurately so that the
scheduled tonnes of ore can be delivered to the mill using the
scheduled development resources and capital. As the mining
recovery is increased, lower capital and operating costs are
incurred in accessing each tonne of ore. Whether the increased
recovery is desirable depends on how quickly the
corresponding stoping costs increase in achieving the higher

Use of Benchmark Data

The lack of detailed information for deep mine studies can be
addressed in part by the use of benchmark data obtained from
other mines. This data will show the likely spread of values for
each parameter so that realistic simulation modelling can be
undertaken. For example, Figure 4.2 shows the spread of unit
mining costs over a range of production rates.

Figure 2 - Benchmark Unit Mining Costs

0.0 1.0 2.0 3.0 4.0 5.0 6.0
Mining Rate (Mtpa)




It is noteworthy that, at least for depths down to 1500m, there is
little correlation between depth and unit mining cost. The real
value of the benchmark data set is in knowing:

• Which mine is represented by each data point,
• Why it has a value higher or lower than the trend, and
• How similar that mine is to the project being

High-level data such as Fig. 2 is useful in early studies, but
detailed benchmark data on drilling, loading, trucking etc
becomes more useful as the quality of the geological
information improves and the studies become more detailed and
specific. While there is a limited benchmark database for deep
mines, the parameters from the wider database can be adjusted
as necessary for variations in the operating environment.

Risk and Decision Making

The track record of mine feasibility studies is poor. A study
reported by Tatman (2001) compared the final feasibility study
production rate with the average sustained production rate from
sixty steeply dipping tabular deposits. Tatman found that 35%
of the mines did not achieve their planned production rate, and
was able to derive an empirical formula relating the risk of
failure to the geometry of the deposit and the rate of mining.

The failure rate observed by Tatman may be compared with the
observation that only 50% of underground base metal mines
and mills reach design throughput by Year 3 and 25% never
reach design throughput, as shown in Fig.4.3 (Ward and
McCarthy, 1999). In an earlier study of 35 Australian gold
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AMC Reference Library –

mines (Burmeister, 1988), 68% of mines failed to deliver the
planned head grade, while a review of nearly 50 North
American projects showed only 10% achieved their commercial
aims with 38% failing within about one year (Harquail 1991).
Similar statistics can be found on studies from the 1960s and

This history of poor feasibility study performance applies to all
mines, not just the deep ones. Studies for deep mines have to
overcome this inherently poor performance using below-
average data quality while supporting larger than average
capital investments. Given this reality, some conclusions can be
• Deep resources have to be of very high quality to
attract finance.
• The expenditure on exploration, “research” and
studies has to be higher for deep mines in order to
adequately quantify the risks.
• A staged approach to evaluation, possibly with
multiple capital raisings, may be the only way to
bring a deep mine to Final Feasibility status.
• Access to relevant benchmark data, and an
understanding of where past studies have failed, are
essential inputs to the process.

Figure 3 - Startup Performance of Ten Base Metal Mines (annual data)
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Mine production
as percentage of
designed mill capacity
Time from start-up (years)

The question of what level of risk is acceptable to investors and
lenders must be answered on a case-by-case basis. If the
probability of failure is significant, then the reward for success
must be very high and the likely source of funding will be
equity rather than debt.

Financial Modelling

Two types of financial modelling are used in the feasibility
study process:

• Complex models used for choosing between options
and optimising study cases.
• Simple presentation models that can present the “base
case” and sensitivity analysis.

The study team uses complex models throughout the study
process. They are typically macro-driven spreadsheets and may
include add-ons based on genetic algorithms or other goal-
seeking optimisers. Some models may be based on simulations
of physical activities such as materials handling. The complex
models may, within the time and cost constraints of a study, be
impossible to independently check and may be meaningless to
anyone but the author. They are, never the less, valuable tools
that lead to optimised results that can be verified with more
simple and robust models. The output from complex models is
typically presented as three-dimensional plots, histograms and
probability distributions.
The presentation models use no macros or other hidden
functions. They can be independently verified on a line-by-line
basis on screen, or from hard copy using only a hand calculator.
They reach a single bottom-line answer that can be flexed by
changing a single input such as head grade or product price.
They provide definitive confirmation that the underlying logic
of the financial evaluation is robust.

Both types of models must be driven by a physical schedule.
The physical schedule must be sufficiently detailed that it
identifies, for example, ore sources by stope type or
development type. Any model that generates a “global average
cost per tonne” without the ability to change the proportion of
ore obtained from each source can be seriously misleading.

Similarly, the use of “contractor unit rates” in a final feasibility
study can disguise the reasons why this mine may vary from the
average. Either the rates must be contractually binding at the
study stage, or the study team should build up its own “first
principles” estimates for all activities. With the uncertainty
inherent in deep mining studies, there is much potential for
contract variations and claims arising from various forms of
latent conditions. It is not commercially feasible for the project
owner to lay off these risks onto the contractor.

Where the decision makers (company directors and financiers)
are mathematically literate, presentation of Monte-Carlo style
simulation results can provide a much better insight into risk
and reward than the traditional sensitivity analysis. In the
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author’s experience only a small minority of projects have been
presented in this way because of a lack of interest by the
decision makers. This is changing, and such presentations are
particularly relevant to the higher risk and high capital
environment of deep mines.

Peer Review and Audit

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and in retrospect most
feasibility study failings should have been identified before the
capital commitment was made. The project owners and the
study team usually share the aim of getting the project “over the
hurdle”, which makes them less than impartial assessors of the
risks. It might be thought that the financiers would provide an
impartial check on study findings, but the bonus system
available to lending teams gives them a bias toward approving
finance where any negative outcome will only be realised
several years in the future.

Major studies for deep mines, and in fact for any mines, should

• A formal process of risk assessment.
• Peer review by a specialist team that has no interest in
the project outcome.
• Independent audit of data gathering and analysis for
each step in the study process.

The necessary independence is not generally available within
the project team’s parent organisation, so external consultants
are commonly used.


The disappointing performance of feasibility studies noted in
Section 8 might lead to the conclusion that many mining
projects should never have proceeded. This view is reinforced
by the poor return on investment provided by the mining sector
over at least the last two decades. In the author’s view the
success of the Rio Tinto group has been due, at least in part, to
rigorous risk assessment and a willingness to forgo the
marginal opportunities.

Deep mining projects add to the problems that are generally
inherent in mine development. The challenge in managing
studies for deep mining projects is to balance the progressive
financial exposure with the ongoing assessment of risk and
reward. From the outset, peer review and audit mechanisms
should be set up so that the project can be “taken out and shot”
if ever it becomes apparent that the original expectations of
financial performance are unlikely to be met.

The technological challenges are necessarily the focus of the
study team. The study manager must ensure that the work is
carried out within a framework that reflects the commercial


1. Burmeister B.B., From Resource to Reality: A
Critical Review of the Achievements of New
Australian Gold Mining Projects During the Period
January 1983 to September 1987, Macquarie
University, 1988.
2. Daley A., Is it Bankable? Ore Reserve Estimates. The
Impact on Miners and Financiers AusIMM March
3. Dunne, K., & Pakalnis, R. C., 1996. Dilution aspects
of sublevel retreat stope at Detour Lake Mine Rock
Mechanics, Aubertin, Hassani & Mitri (eds) Balkema
4. Harquail D., 1991. Investing in Junior Mining
Companies. Proceedings of the 6th Mineral
Economics Symposium of CIM. CIM Montreal
5. Lee, M, Pascoe, M and Mikula, P, 2001. Virgin Rock
Stresses vs Rock Mass Strength In Western
Australia’s Yilgarn Greenstones, in Ground Control
in Mines Workshop, 22 June 2001, The Chamber of
Minerals and Energy of Western Australia Inc: Perth.
6. JORC 1999, The Australasian Code for Reporting of
Mineral Resources and Ore Reserves. Prepared by the
Joint Ore Reserves Committee of the Australasian
Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, Australian
Institute of Geoscientists, and Minerals Council of
7. Tatman C.R. 2001 Production Rate Selection for
Steeply Dipping Tabular Deposits Mining
Engineering October 2001 pp. 62-64
8. Turner M. 2002 Seismically Active Mines – To Buy
or Not to Buy Underground Operators’ Conference.
The AusIMM Townsville July 2002 pp. 141-150
9. Ward D.J. and McCarthy P.L. 1999 Startup
Performance of New Base Metal Projects in Adding
Value to the Carpentaria Mineral Province, Mt Isa,
Qld, Australian Journal of Mining, April 1999.

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