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The mining industry, long an important factor in the social and economic growth of Australia, continues to hold great promise for the future development of the country. The gold discoveries of the 1850s were responsible for the first big wave of free immigration and for the settlement of some inland areas. The mining sector has expanded significantly since the 1970s, with major discoveries of iron ore, petroleum, coal, and natural gas. Today, Australia is self-sufficient in most minerals of economic significance, and in several cases is among the world’s leading producers. The minerals industry in general is the country’s largest export earner, and the country is a leading supplier of mineral resources to international markets.
Australia boasts the world’s largest known recoverable resources of lead, mineral sands, tantalum, uranium, silver, and zinc. It is ranked in the world’s top six countries for recoverable deposits of black and brown coal, cobalt, copper, diamonds, gold, iron ore, manganese ore, and nickel. This natural bounty reflects both Australia’s geological diversity and its comparatively recent exploitation of these resources. Western Australia traditionally has the largest share by value of total national mineral production, especially of the metallic minerals.
Australia is the world’s largest producer of both gem or near-gem and industrial-grade diamonds, producing about two-fifths of the global total. Production of gem-quality diamonds was 9,279,000 carats in 2004. Much of it came from the giant Argyle Diamond Mine in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. The main export destinations in the late 1990s were Belgium and Luxembourg (which constitute a single trading entity) and the United Kingdom.
Of the metallic minerals, gold and iron ore are the most significant. Australia accounted for some 13 percent of the world’s gold production in 1998, placing it third in the world rankings after South Africa and the United States. About three-fourths of the nation’s output (259,000 kg/571,000 lb in 2004) is mined in Western Australia, notably near Kalgoorlie-Boulder. Most of the gold is exported to Singapore, Japan, Switzerland, and Hong Kong. About 96 percent of Australia’s iron-ore production also takes place in Western Australia, chiefly in the Pilbara region. Iron-ore reserves also exist at Iron Knob in South Australia; on Cockatoo Island in Yampi Sound off Western Australia; in northwestern Tasmania; and in Gippsland, Victoria. Almost all of the iron ore is exported, mainly to Japan; Australia is now Japan’s major supplier of iron ore. Other markets include China, Germany, South Korea, and Taiwan.
In the late 1990s Australia was the world’s largest producer and second largest exporter of bauxite; it was the largest producer and exporter of alumina and the third largest exporter of aluminum. Japan was the main export market for aluminum. The major bauxite mines are located south of Perth in Western Australia and in the Northern Territory on the Gove Peninsula.
Important uranium mines are located in the Northern Territory (Ranger, Jabiluka, and Koongarra mines in the Alligator Rivers Region), Kintyre and Yeelirie in Western Australia, and at Olympic Dam in South Australia. Olympic Dam’s uranium-gold-silver deposit is described as the world’s largest deposit of low-cost uranium. All but a tiny fraction of Australia’s uranium is exported.
In the late 1990s coal was the country’s top export earner. The main market was Japan. Coal mining is heavily concentrated in New South Wales and Queensland. Mostly bituminous coal is mined, but hard, or black, coal (anthracite) is also found. The lignite, or brown coal, industry is located in Victoria, where this lower grade of coal is used to produce electricity. Other major minerals in Australia include nickel, mined near Kalgoorlie-Boulder; copper, mined at Mount Lyell in Tasmania, Mount Isa in Queensland, and Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory; zinc, mined at Broken Hill in New South Wales; and manganese, mined at Groote Eylandt, Northern Territory. Titanium and zircon are recovered from the beach sands of southern Queensland, New South Wales, and Western Australia. Queensland, New South Wales, and Tasmania are the main tin-producing states, and tungsten concentrates are mined on King Island in the Bass Strait. Significant petroleum deposits have been exploited in Bass Strait, Barrow Island, and southern Queensland. Total production of petroleum in 2004 was 187 million barrels. Natural gas is also extracted, with annual production of 35.6 billion cu m (1,257 billion cu ft).