Action area 3: Strategic infrastructure investment

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Goal: Connecting critical minerals opportunities with infrastructure developments.

The Australian Government plays an important role in the development of infrastructure to support globally competitive industries and provide access to growing international markets. The Government's support for infrastructure development has the capacity to stimulate and enhance economic productivity, reduce capital costs for businesses, build our competitive advantages, and deliver a multiplier effect throughout the economy, generating lasting economic and social benefits.

Australia has an abundance of critical minerals resources across the country. As the mineral systems and deposit types that critical minerals are typically found in are, in many cases, already extensively mined for their major metals, critical mineral mines are often supported by existing infrastructure, as shown in Figure 2. The widespread distribution of critical minerals also suggests possible flexibility in the development of future infrastructure and supply chains for a number of them.

The Australian and state and territory governments continue to invest in upgrades to existing infrastructure. Road upgrades can reduce commercial costs for operators in Australia's critical minerals sector by improving roads' flood immunity to reduce road closures during wet seasons, supporting more productive heavy vehicle access and usage, and improving access to key infrastructure, such as ports, and electricity generation for resources developments.

Lithium mines and production around Port Hedland in the northwest of Western Australia will benefit from upgrades to the Marble Bar Road – Coongan Gorge, for which the Australian Government is providing up to $43.58 million through the Northern Australia Roads Program (NARP). By widening and reconstructing a narrow section of the Marble Bar Road that passes through Coongan Gorge, the project will improve road safety and accessibility for freight vehicles, with the Marble Bar Road providing an important link between mining and other resource operations in the East Pilbara and Port Hedland. The upgrade is an important response to the continuing need of the resources industry in the area for a reliable and fit-for-purpose road network.

Australian Government commitments to upgrade sections of the Great Northern Highway will improve access for freight vehicles to and from Wyndham Port. These projects could benefit developments such as the Browns Range dysprosium project southeast of Halls Creek:

  • $44.91 million (through the NARP) to upgrade the Great Northern Highway between Maggie Creek and Wyndham will improve road safety and freight efficiency. This section of the Great Northern Highway is a key inter-town link between Wyndham (including the Port of Wyndham), Kununurra and Halls Creek. For example, the upgrade is expected to improve access for freight vehicles to and from Wyndham Port, enable higher freight capacity and reduce the impact of flooding on road users by improving accessibility.

Figure 2: Road Infrastructure and Critical Minerals Mines and Deposits

A map of Australia showing major and minor road networks overlaid with the locations of critical mineral mines and deposits.

  • Another $30.79 million to upgrade the Great Northern Highway at the Bow River Bridge and its approaches. The upgrade, completed in November 2018, replaced the single lane, low-level Bow River Bridge with a new two lane, high-level bridge and also aligned and sealed the roads approaching the bridge. The project has increased road reliability and safety through improved flood immunity and enhanced network accessibility for local communities and business centres.
  • An additional $12.5 million to improve the Great Northern Highway between Ord and Turkey Creek. Funds for this project have been committed through the Northern Australia Beef Roads Program. Due to commence in 2019, this project will improve freight carrying capacity and connectivity by realigning the roads, installing passing lanes along high priority sections of the highway, and building a new two lane bridge over Frog Hollow which will increase flood immunity.

Other road infrastructure upgrades, such as the $330 million in upgrades to the Outback Way, could improve access to undeveloped critical mineral resources in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland along its corridor, as well as enhancing road safety. The Mt Weld Central Lanthanide Deposit is one of the highest-grade REE deposits in the world. Mt Weld also hosts the undeveloped Duncan (REE), Crown (niobium, tantalum, titanium, REE, zirconium) and Swan (phosphate) deposits. Another deposit within reach of the Outback Way is the Nebo-Babel deposit which is currently stranded due to lack of infrastructure.

Building on these commitments, the $3.5 billion Roads of Strategic Importance (ROSI) initiative will ensure that key freight routes efficiently connect agricultural and mining regions to ports, airports and other transport hubs. ROSI reserves $1.5 billion for investment in freight corridors in northern Australia.

The $5 billion Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) is another Government initiative that supports infrastructure development, including in the resources sector. The NAIF can provide financial assistance for infrastructure investments that facilitate the establishment or enhancement of business activity or increase economic activity in a region. As at 20 February 2019, of the projects in the due diligence phase of NAIF's assessment processes – 12 out of 24 are in the resources sector. One example of a project in the due diligence phase is the Sconi Cobalt-Nickel-Scandium project in north Queensland.

In 2018, the NAIF made an investment decision to provide a loan of up to $19.5 million to support emerging lithium and tantalum producer, Pilbara Minerals, in its upgrade of a public road, located south of Port Hedland. The project will enable larger freight movements and mitigate the risk of transport disruptions from extreme weather by providing an alternative route from the mine to Port Hedland. It will also increase safety for all road users in the region. The road will remain in public hands and be available to all users with total public benefit over the 17-year life of the mine assessed at nearly $27 million.

Australia has a track record of building the infrastructure required to mine and transport its natural resources to global markets. This can be expected to continue in the case of critical minerals.