Back in 2010, BHP was prepared to invest nearly US$40 billion to get the keys to the five potash mines in Saskatchewan owned by the PotashCorp. It was a difficult and dramatic moment as the federal government weighed its support for foreign investment against the fact that the takeover was deeply unpopular in Saskatchewan. 

The deal was killed because it did not provide a “net benefit” to Canada. BHP, however, would not be deterred. In 2012 the company broke ground on its Jansen project near Humboldt, Saskatchewan. The project, along with PotashCorp’s Scissors Creek, The Mosaic Co.’s K3 sinking, and K+S’s solution mine marked a new generation of potash development in the region. BHP opted to add a further degree of difficulty to an already technically complex project. The two shafts at Jansen were sunk using mechanical excavation - effectively a tunnel boring machine turned 90 degrees, suspended and lowered down the hole it was excavating. The new approach had clear benefits: It had the potential to be safer by removing workers from the shaft bottom; without explosives, the risk to the pipes freezing the ground would be removed and less ground support would be required; it would also improve precision, limiting the amount of overbreak that would later need to be filled in. 

Projects reliant on new technology are heavy with risks that not many companies are prepared to carry. Sure enough, the shaft sinking encountered a number of challenges that slowed progress as the project team developed solutions, and ultimately reached the potash 1,000 metres below surface in the spring of 2018. Earlier this year, BHP’s then CEO Andrew Mackenzie conceded the US$3.8 billion the company had committed to Jansen was too much. The company has not yet decided exactly when it will move ahead with the further investment required to bring the mine into production.

Having been at the Shaft Design and Construction conference in Toronto in November, however, it was clear to me that, regardless of the poor return to BHP shareholders, Jansen has been a boon for the community of engineers challenged with sinking shafts safely and efficiently. The mechanical excavation employed at Jansen is the new standard for large shaft sinking projects in soft to medium hard rock. A shaft sinking for a potash project in Belarus is using the same technology, applying the lessons learned from Jansen, and a third project in England will also employ the shaft boring roadheader to meet an ambitious deadline for shaft development there.

Whether BHP opts to mothball Jansen, sell it or press on, its commitment to a new approach to mine development have proven a net benefit to potash mine developments and an essential case study of technology adoption and lessons learned in mining.