Can Modern Gold Mining Be Sustainable?

It’s a core part of California lore. Back in 1848, golden rocks were discovered in the hills north of Sacramento.The value of the element caught attention nationally, drawing thousands of hopeful miners out to northern California. The small state trading post of San Francisco quickly boomed into a large city.

Gold mining still happens today, with higher yields than ever before. Considering mining’s impact on the planet, and the global appetite for gold, we decided to visit a working mine near Shasta, California.

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There's gold in those hills. On the road to the Washington gold mine in French Gulch, California. Photo by Spencer Millsap.

Gone are the days of panning for gold in the nearby rivers and stumbling upon large nuggets. Tim Callaway, president of Shasta Gold Corporation, runs the massive Washington Mine about 30 miles northeast of Redding. At full production, his miners expect to recover “tens of thousands” of ounces each year (it’s forbidden for miners to discuss their actual bounty).

In full safety gear and headlamps, Callaway’s team took me and National Geographic videographer Spencer Millsap 600 feet down into the mine, through dark and musty passages carved from solid rock. Modern gold mining involves excavating a series of geologic veins that are rich in gold. Then the rocks are pulled to the surface to be ground into dust. Large boulders can result in just a few teaspoons of gold powder. After the powder is melted down you get the color and weight of an ounce of solid gold—on today’s market, worth about $1,700.

It’s an extensive and energy intensive process. Yet Callaway thinks that, in some ways, gold mining might be considered sustainable.

Certainly any time of mineral extraction can never be fully sustainable, he admits. Pulling ancient minerals out of the earth faster than the planet makes them means they’ll eventually be completely gone. But that day is far off.

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From large boulders come a few good ounces of refined gold. Photo by Spencer Millsap

Despite what jewelers might tell you, gold isn’t really that scarce. Roughly 190 million ounces have been extracted since the California gold rush. Some geologists suspect there may be a hundred times that amount still in the hills of California—and even more around the globe. “We’re just scratching the surface,” Mitch Jones, the mine’s head geologist, told us.

Gold has powerful economics behind it that stabilize its impact on the planet. Like many minerals, the price of gold fluctuates every day based on global supply and demand. With too much available gold on the market, the price drops, making gold mining more expensive. “We can only mine as long as the price is favorable,” Callaway told me in the bungalow he uses for an office.

That idea is one of the chief arguments used by advocates of a national gold standard: The slow-moving cost of mining for new gold can ensure the broader economy stays in relative balance. It’s a strong argument for pseudo-sustainability. Though we depend on energy commodities such as coal or natural gas, we have no national dependence on gold. We just have a penchant for it. Companies will only extract gold as long as people are willing to pay higher and higher prices, as the costs of going deeper and deeper rise. It’s a unique balance mostly based on desire, not need.

The mining process is still enough to make any environmentalist cringe. Yet while walking the dark tunnels, it was worth thinking about the comparative impact. Gold mining doesn’t blast away mountains, like coal, nor risk massive spills, like oil. Brackish water containing arsenic and other contaminants does comes out of the mine, although federal environmental regulators require it be filtered to be cleaner than mountain spring water before it is released into streams.

Seeing modern mining at work had a farm-to-table element. Just as food activists suggest becoming better acquainted with where your beef or vegetables come from, seeing how the gold on your ring or watch actually materializes gives a more accurate picture of its true cost.

Callaway hopes global demand for gold will steadily increase over the next few decades. At that rate, he says, his operation could continue unstopped for the next hundred years or more.