Mining in Western Australia

Mining in Western Australia, together with the petroleum industry in the state, accounted for 85 per cent of the State's and 41% of Australia's income from total merchandise exports in 2017–18. The state of Western Australia hosted 127 principal mining projects and hundreds of smaller quarries and mines. The principal projects produced more than 99 per cent of the industry's total sales value.[1][2]

Mining in Western Australia
Position of Western Australia within Australia highlighted
StateWestern Australia
Regulatory authority
AuthorityDepartment of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety
WebsiteDepartment of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety
Value A$115 billion
Employees 112,008 (mining)
1,253 (onshore petroleum)

Western Australia's mineral and petroleum industry, in 2017–18, had a value of $115 billion, of which $88 billion was created by the mining industry, up $10 billion from 2016–17. The value of the mineral and petroleum industry in 2005–06 was $43 billion.[2][1]

Iron ore was, in 2017-18, the most important commodity in Western Australia, accounting for 54 percent of sales in the state's mineral and petroleum industry. The petroleum sector followed in second place with 23 percent of the overall value, consisting of oil and gas. The third most important commodity in the state was gold, with 10 percent of the overall value. Alumina, base metals (copper, lead and zinc), nickel and tin-tantalum-lithium followed in the order of importance, each achieving a value in excess of A$1 billion. Other major commodities included mineral sands, diamonds, rare earth metals, cobalt, coal and salt.[3][4]

Employment in the Western Australian mining and petroleum industry has sharply increased from 75,000 in 2009, directly employing an average of 113,261 people during 2017–18.[1][3]

The industry's regulating authority in Western Australia is the Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety, renamed from the Department of Mines and Petroleum (DMP) on 1 July 2017, which in turn replaced the Department of Industry and Resources (DOIR) on 1 January 2009. The department also produces the annual Western Australian Mineral and Petroleum Statistic Digest and operates the MINDEX website, which is aimed at listing all current and former mining operations in the state.[5]


Mining transformed the Western Australian economy. Gold finds in the 1890s brought unprecedented numbers of people and amounts of capital to WA.

Gold mining declined after 1904, and Western Australia went through a painful period of structural adjustment over the course of the following three decades during which time two world wars, an international depression and a major drought complicated the state's economic development. Mining began to take off again in the 1930s, however at the time the state governments' focus was in agricultural expansion and manufacturing initiatives. The primary sector would experience strong growth until the early 1970s, after which it leveled off. More than a million hectares of marginal agricultural land was abandoned, and the government turned to mining as the state's main economic priority.

The period after 1945 has been characterised by the development of the State's mining sector into a world-scale industry and Western Australia's increasing access to the rest of the world. Communication and transport advances brought Western Australia much closer to the rest of the world, providing opportunities for local producers to access markets in other countries much more easily. On the other hand, overseas producers could access the Western Australian market relatively more readily. The outcome has been a highly specialised and trade-dependent Western Australian economy (with mining and mineral processing the dominant industries), using income derived to import many other goods and services.

The State's second major resource boom was stimulated when, in 1960, the Commonwealth Government lifted the iron ore export embargo that had been in place since 1938.[6] Demand was fuelled by the buoyant Japanese economy and Japanese, American and British investment flowed into the State. While Asia had previously been a market for Western Australian products (notably sandalwood and wool), the export of iron ore to Japan marked a fundamental shift in Western Australia's trade dynamic and paved the way for the development of Asia as the State's most important trading region.

Prior to the resurgence of the resource sector, economic conditions had been relatively subdued, with constant-price household income per capita roughly the same in 1960–61 as in 1948–49. However, the mining boom caused income per capita to more than double by 1973–74. Importantly, while iron ore was (and remains) a significant component of the mining industry, one important aspect of the resources boom in the 1960s that set it apart from the gold rush, was the diversity of commodities being mined. There were major discoveries of nickel, petroleum, bauxite and alumina, which all developed into significant industries in the 1960s and 1970s. There was also a major revival in the mining of gold in the 1980s, stimulated by price increases associated with the end of the gold standard in 1971, high inflation throughout the 1970s and new processing technology.


  • 1848: Lead ore was found by explorer James Perry Walcott, a member of A.C. Gregory's party, near Northampton
  • 1863: Lead and copper ores represent 14% of the colony's total annual exports, exceeded only by wool and sandalwood
  • 1877: Copper and lead ores are the colony's second largest export, still at 14% of the total, after wool
  • 1892: Arthur Bailey and William Ford discover gold at Fly Flat near Coolgardie
  • 17 June 1893: Paddy Hannan discovers gold near Kalgoorlie, sparking Western Australia's gold rush
  • 1899: Sir John Forrest, the first Premier of Western Australia, saw the importance of gold in the development of Western Australia's economy, and successfully lobbied the British Government to establish a branch of the Royal Mint in Perth
  • 1934: A lease was assigned over iron ore deposits at Koolan Island in Yampi Sound off the coast of the Kimberley to the Nippon Mining Company backed by the Japanese government.
  • 1935–39: High gold prices encourage investment
  • 1937: Public and government outcry when Nippon Mining proposed not to use Australian labour but to send its own engineers to construct the Koolan Island mine.
  • 1939–45: Labour shortages as a result of the Second World War caused many mines to cease operation, and following the war, many did not re-open.
  • 1938: Commonwealth government enacts iron ore export embargo[6] The stated reason for the embargo was doubt as to the adequacy of Australian iron ore resources for Australia's own needs.[7]
  • 1940: Extensive survey of iron ore deposits determined only two were commercially viable, one being the Yampi Sound Group.[7]
  • 1948: Bureau of Mineral Resources combined with the WA Department of Mines to carry out systematic geological and geophysical surveys in the North West, mostly seeking oil.
  • 1960: Commonwealth Government lifts iron ore export embargo
  • 1964: Oil discovered on Barrow Island.
  • 1967: Oil production on Barrow Island begins.
  • 1969–1970: Poseidon nickel boom
  • 1977: Premier Sir Charles Court agreed with Alcoa Australia to take a designated quota of the gas in return for permission to build a third alumina refinery at Wagerup.
  • 1981: The Western Australian Government negotiated an agreement to allow development of the large natural gas reserves on the North West Shelf.
  • 1987: Global stock market crash
  • 1989: First liquefied natural gas (LNG) cargo exported to Japan in 1989.
  • 2008: Global financial crisis - the mining industry placed Australia in a strong economic and fiscal position ahead of the crisis, and helped accelerate the post-crisis recovery[8]
  • August 2009: Gorgon Consortium signs $50 billion contract with PetroChina for gas extraction from the fields around Barrow Island.

Major commodities

Iron ore

Iron ore mining in Western Australia, in the financial year 2008–09, accounted for 47 percent of the total value of the states resources, with a value of A$33.56 billion. The overall value of the mineral and petroleum industry in Western Australia was A$71.3 billion in 2008–09, a 19 percent increase compare to the previous financial year.[4] Iron ore in Western Australia experienced unprecedented growth in 2008–09, with the states output growing by 8.5 percent, to 316 million tonnes of ore. In terms of value, the industry grew by 53 percent. The bulk of Western Australian ore went to China, which imported 64 percent of the 2008–09 production, followed by Japan with 21 percent.[4] The boom of the last decade was however somewhat slowed in 2009, when the value of the industry fell by 12 percent compare to the previous calendar year, and this despite record production of 342 million tonnes of ore.[3]

In the calendar year 2009, the Western Australian Government received over A$1.7 billion in royalties from the iron ore mining industry in the state.[3]

Iron ore mining in Western Australia is predominantly, but not exclusively, carried out in the Pilbara region, which produced ore in value of A$26.82 billion in 2009, out of an overall iron ore production value of A$28.1 billion for the state.[3]


Crude oil and condensate reached a value of A$8.7 billion in 2009, while LNG achieved a value of A$6.3 billion in 2009.[3]


The history of gold mining in Western Australia dates back to the 1880s but took on some larger dimensions in the 1890s, after gold discoveries at Coolgardie in 1892 and Kalgoorlie in 1893. It reached an early peak in 1903, experienced a golden era in the 1930s and a revival in the mid-1980s. In between, the industry declined a number of times, particularly during the two world wars, experiencing an absolute low point in 1976.[9]

In 2017-2018, gold produced achieved a record annual value of A$11.4 billion. Gold production in the state increased by 5 percent, to 6.8 million ounces (211.7 tonnes), 6.8% of world production.[1][10]


The Darling Range contains considerable deposits of bauxite. These are by Alcoa and Worsley Alumina for the production of alumina.

Alcoa's first bauxite mine at Jarrahdale was opened in 1963 to service the Kwinana alumina refinery. 168 million tonnes of bauxite was mined from Jarrahdale until its closure in 1998. The Huntly mine was established in the early 1970s to supply bauxite for both the Kwinana and Pinjarra refineries. It is currently the biggest bauxite mine in the world. The Wagerup refinery is serviced by the Willowdale bauxite mine, established in 1984.[11]

Worsley Alumina constructed a mine site and refinery in the early 1980s. The mine site is located near Boddington and the bauxite is transported by a 51 km conveyor belt to the refinery at Worsley. Following an A$1 billion expansion in 2000, Worsley now export 3.1 million tonnes of alumina.[12]

In 2009, Western Australia produced 12.4 million tonnes of Alumina, at a value of A$3.6 billion, a reduction in value by 27 percent.[3]


The Western Australian nickel industry suffered from falling international prices in 2009. Nickel production had been reasonably steady, the value of the industry had decreased from a peak A$6.9 billion in 2007 to under 3.3 billion in 2009. Also, the number of employees fell from a peak 13,307 in 2008 to 7,561 in 2009.[3]

A large number of nickel mines in the state were placed in care and maintenance at the end of 2008 because of falling international prices.[4]

The discovery in Kambalda, Western Australia in 1966, Mount Windarra in 1969 and Agnew in 1971 coinciding with rising world nickel prices and a prolonged strike at a major nickel in Canada, meant that the discoveries were rapidly developed, bringing about a "nickel boom" between 1967 and 1971.

Base metals

The value of base metals production in the state declined by 12 percent in 2009.[3] The largest base metals producing mine in Western Australia is the Golden Grove Mine near Yalgoo.[4]


Western Australian output of copper increased by ten percent in 2009, having grown from just over 34,000 tonnes per annum in 2000 to 142,490 tonnes by 2009,[3] with a brief dip in production in 2004 due to the closure of the Lennard Shelf mine.[13] In 2009 however, world copper prices fell by 26 percent, causing the industry in the state to lose 11 percent of its value.[3]


Lead mining in Western Australia experienced a boom in 2009, almost doubling its production. This was caused by the reopening of the Magellan mine, ner Wiluna. Overall, the state's lead production in the last 20 years has been varied, reaching a peak of 91,380 tonnes in 2001, falling to 1,170 tonnes in 2004 because of the closure of the Lennard Shelf mine,[13] before reaching another peak in 2006 and a low in 2008.[3]


Zinc experienced a drop in production and prices in 2009, output in Western Australia falling by 33 percent and the value of the industry decreasing by 35 percent.[3] Because of the close association in nature of zinc and lead ores, zinc has experienced the same variations in production as lead in recent decades.[13]


Coal in Western Australia is currently, as of 2019, mined at Collie, where two mines are operating. Ninety percent of all coal mined at Collie is used in power stations, the remainder in the mineral sands production. While a small amount of Western Australian coal has been exported to India and China in recent years, the majority goes to the coal-fired power stations, mainly located in the Collie area.[4]

Coal production in the state has been quite steady in the past decade, with the 2009 production of 6.56 million tonnes being only three percent less than in 2008. Like production, the value of the Western Australian coal industry has remained reasonably constant, too, with a slight increase to A$308 million in 2009.[3]


The bulk of diamonds produced in Western Australia originate from the Argyle diamond mine, located in the far north of the state. The mine produces around 20 percent of the global diamond output and commenced mining in 1985. The mine's most famous product is its pink diamonds, of which it produces around 90 percent of the world's supply, which is, however, only one percent of the mine's overall production. Apart from Argyle, there is only one other operating diamond mine in the state, the Ellendale mine, located 100 km east of Derby, which opened in 2002. Ellendale produces the rare yellow diamonds.[4]

In 2009, sale volumes for diamonds fell by 44 percent while the value of the industry in the state decreased by 53 percent in comparison to 2008.[3]


Eighty percent of all salt produced in Australia comes from Western Australia. Of the state's production, 77 percent originates from Dampier Salt Limited's operations at Dampier, Port Hedland and Lake MacLeod in the Pilbara. Other mining locations in the state include Onslow, Koolyanobbing and Esperance.[4]

While the overall salt production in Western Australia dropped by 19 percent in 2009, to 9.5 million tonnes, the value of the industry increased dramatically, by 59 percent, to A$432 million.[3]


No uranium mining currently takes place in the state and no developing projects are scheduled to enter the mining phase before 2020.[14]

Five projects are in the approval process, the Lake Maitland uranium project, Toro Energy's Lake Way uranium project, Cameco's Yeelirrie uranium project and Kintyre uranium project, and Vimy Resources' Mulga Rocks uranium project. Given the low uranium price none of these projects are progressing to production in the short term. Lake Way, Lake Maitland and Yeelirrie are located within 100 km of Wiluna.[15]


In the past decade, from 2001 to 2010, 42 employees have lost their lives in the state's mining industry. Of those, gold and iron ore have been the most dangerous, with 14 fatalities each, followed by nickel, with nine. Of the 42 fatalities, 29 have occurred at the surface and 13 in underground mining.[16]

Since 1943, the year the Department of Mines records date back to, to 2010, 657 work-related fatalities have occurred in the mining industry in the state.[16]


Annual statistics for the Western Australian mining industry:[3][13][17][18][19][20]


Commodities measured in million tonnes per annum:

Commodity 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
Iron ore 158.87 162.25 171.77 194.75 215.85 244.64 250.40 264.45 305.72 341.64
Alumina 10.0 10.75 11.0 11.23 10.99 11.35 11.87 12.17 12.25 12.42
Salt 7.71 8.58 9.17 9.75 10.4 11.48 10.72 10.39 11.49 9.55
Coal 6.2 6.2 6.26 6.03 6.31 6.41 7.25 5.81 6.73 6.56

Commodities measured in tonnes per annum:

Commodity 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
Nickel 153,510 181,170 183,000 190,210 174,700 191,710 175,180 161,010 187,790 171,970
Copper 34,040 50,240 64,290 58,780 42,680 83,880 99,960 119,410 129,530 142,490
Zinc 257,720 210,840 218,800 174,550 51,780 63,610 138,840 180,730 156,010 104,690
Lead 73,080 91,380 70,400 56,490 1,170 30,270 74,850 42,020 13,780 26,700
Cobalt 3,590 4,260 4,700 5,170 4,550 4,590 5,130 4,730 4,780 4,629

Commodities measured in million carats per annum:

Commodity 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
Diamonds 42.3 21.68 34.37 35.48 24.23 34.31 17.07 23.54 21.24 11.9

Commodities measured in kilogram per annum:

Commodity 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
Gold 199,500 192,200 188,860 187,500 164,420 169,830 163,840 152,690 131,824 142,519


Commodities at an annual production value of A$ billion:

Commodity 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
Iron ore 4.365 5.245 5.064 5.061 6.173 11.308 14.751 16.165 31.896 28.085
Gold 3.08 3.24 3.46 3.37 2.94 3.15 4.24 4.07 4.39 5.66
Alumina 3.188 3.767 3.339 3.14 3.179 3.656 4.767 4.704 4.901 3.594
Nickel 2.243 2.075 2.243 2.68 3.261 3.484 5.844 6.958 4.059 3.281

Commodities at an annual production value of A$ million:

Commodity 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
Copper 82.61 120.71 145.49 145.09 160.94 434.71 917.78 1,018.75 1,041.6 923.58
Mineral Sands 862.93 909.22 855.87 760.75 749.08 880.37 883.67 780.28 797.89 620.61
Salt 197.32 249.24 250.53 197.01 185.08 213.78 241.64 229.6 276.72 432.44
Coal 257.84 258.21 266.4 266.41 281.91 283.26 317.9 265.15 305.5 308.16
Diamonds 713.68 499.53 650.34 661.86 414.81 740.1 446.9 555.0 490.71 230.0
Zinc 290.11 208.72 173.06 139.73 57.78 118.91 607.12 695.54 329.13 213.47
Cobalt 157.66 146.27 118.95 145.04 262.18 166.95 220.43 343.08 378.71 178.9
Lead 25.76 44.90 32.69 24.32 0.31 41.17 130.61 115.57 32.61 44.33


Employment figures for the major commodities and overall figures for the complete mining industry:

Commodity 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
Iron ore 8,604 9,103 9,289 11,184 12,585 13,727 16,203 18,387 23,185 26,051
Gold 10,879 11,938 12,653 12,801 13,398 12,121 12,314 13,733 14,459 16,686
Alumina 6,706 6,569 6,633 7,015 7,613 9,711 8,967 8,559 8,201 8,212
Nickel 5,038 5,160 4,699 5,714 6,704 9,423 10,583 12,736 13,307 7,561
Mineral Sands 2,243 2,338 2,170 2,224 2,435 2,789 2,914 2,840 2,670 1,934
Diamonds 940 1,009 1,101 1,094 1,397 1,479 1,614 1,863 2,218 1,602
Base Metals 1,331 1,301 1,295 1,100 888 670 912 2,241 2,242 1,456
Salt 698 699 648 658 679 853 838 865 867 778
Coal 709 677 649 641 651 716 771 808 897 725
Overall 39,028 40,870 41,288 44,392 48,385 53,598 57,053 64,608 71,225 70,063

Official reports


  1. Western Australian Mineral and Petroleum Statistics Digest 2017–18 (PDF). Perth, WA: Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety, Government of Western Australia. 2018. Retrieved 3 April 2019.
  2. "Western Australian Mineral and Petroleum Statistics Digest 2015–16" (pdf). Department of Mines and Petroleum. East Perth, WA: Government of Western Australia. November 2016. Retrieved 30 January 2017.
  3. Western Australian Mineral and Petroleum Statistic Digest 2009 Department of Mines and Petroleum website, accessed: 28 November 2010
  4. Western Australian Mineral and Petroleum Statistic Digest 2008-09 Department of Mines and Petroleum website, accessed: 26 November 2010
  5. Department of Industry and Resources Restructure Archived 11 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine accessed: 27 October 2010
  6. "EMBARGO ON IRON ORE". The Argus. Melbourne. 24 March 1938. p. 1. Retrieved 31 October 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  7. Archived 21 February 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  8. "Fact check: Did the mining boom play no role in staving off a recession during the global financial crisis?". ABC News. 10 November 2017. Retrieved 9 April 2019.
  9. Mining towns of Western Australia, page: 48, accessed: 5 February 2010
  10. George, Micheal W. (31 January 2018). "Mineral Commodity Summaries 2018" (pdf). Reston, Virginia: U.S. Geological Survey. pp. 70–71.
  11. "Alcoa in Australia: Mining". Retrieved 11 December 2010.
  12. "Worsley Alumina: About Us". Archived from the original on 15 December 2006. Retrieved 11 December 2010.
  13. Western Australian Mineral and Petroleum Statistics Digest 2004 Department of Mines and Petroleum, accessed: 9 December 2010
  14. Michael Lampard. "Uranium Outlook to 2013-14". Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics. Retrieved 26 July 2009.
  15. Toro gets approval for uranium project The Sydney Morning Herald, published: 7 January 2010, accessed: 13 February 2011
  16. Western Australian mining fatalities database Archived 25 February 2011 at the Wayback Machine accessed: 19 February 2011
  17. Western Australian Mineral and Petroleum Statistics Digest 2008 Department of Mines and Petroleum, accessed: 9 December 2010
  18. Western Australian Mineral and Petroleum Statistics Digest 2006 Department of Mines and Petroleum, accessed: 9 December 2010
  19. Western Australian Mineral and Petroleum Statistics Digest 2002 Department of Mines and Petroleum, accessed: 10 December 2010
  20. Western Australian Mineral and Petroleum Statistics Digest 2001 Department of Mines and Petroleum, accessed: 10 December 2010

Further reading

  • Prider, Rex T., ed. (1979). Mining in Western Australia. Sesquicentenary celebrations series. Nedlands, WA: University of Western Australia Press. ISBN 0855641533.
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