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Sourcing regional data: Government survey data serving greenfields explorers

For juniors constrained by limited resources, usable and inexpensive government survey data is often the key to stimulating and advancing greenfields projects.

by Dan Zlotnikov on June 4, 2012 applied

A junior exploration company’s path to success is fraught with risks and upsets; and opportunities are constrained by their limited resources. With each diamond drill hole costing $50,000 or more, a junior can only have so many miscalculations before it will find itself with no money, no promising discovery, and no way to continue the work.

Given the risks a junior must already accept, anything that serves to relieve the risk and reduce unnecessary expenditure of limited funds is welcome. What if, to pick a not very random example, some of the large-scale, regional sampling and surveying was already done? Better yet, what if the resulting data were made available for free?

This is exactly what happened in the case of Bowgan Minerals, an Australian exploration company working on two joint-venture properties with Mega Hindmarsh. Gary Price, Bowgan’s chairman and Manager of Geology, explains that the data gathered by the Geoscience Australia has proven very helpful to the partners.

“The bulk of our targets have been generated after in-house analysis of government data,” he says.Some of the targets being worked on were identified during the company’s own exploration activities, but the majority were recommended by “a very good geophysicist at Mega Hindmarsh,” gleaned from the government data.

Price adds that the database includes not only data gathered directly through government-funded programs, but also results of previous exploration work done in the area by private firms.

“Once tenements are surrendered or work is discontinued, within a period of time that data is collated into a usable format and also made available to the public,” he says.

Bowgan, in turn, has to report its exploration results annually to the government, closing the information-sharing cycle.

Overall, Price says the company has benefited significantly from being able to access the government’s repository of information.

“We're very happy with that amount of data, being able to access that information. We're talking a variety of formats, a variety of different methodologies, and a large amount of usable data. To access that at minimal expense is a tremendous benefit.”

Halfway across the world in Ontario, VP of Exploration at Trelawney Mining David Beilhartz tells a similar story. Trelawney recently discovered the almost seven-million-ounce Côté Lake gold deposit, and is now engaged in advanced exploration at the site. Beilhartz says that while previous exploration had taken place on the property, no gold production has ever taken place.

The exploration program Trelawney put together was based on a compilation of historical data available from government websites and that held by companies who’ve explored the property over the past 60 years.

“The majority of previous landowners' data was acquired through the government, though some we purchased directly from the landowners. Most of the government data was from the assessment reports filed with the OGS,” says Beilhartz.

Beilhartz explains that companies engaged in exploration in the province must file the results with the government in order to get assessment credits needed to keep their claim in good standing. These reports are processed by the OGS – the Ontario Geological Survey – and made available to the public at no cost through the OGS website.

Regional Impact

Price highlights a second benefit government survey work can bring: Regional surveys, while comparatively low-resolution, can cover vast areas. The individual exploration firms can then use that data to identify promising areas where they can conduct their own, more detailed, work.

Since the government-run programs don’t set the goal of finding a specific deposit, they can also look at less obvious areas, sometimes with unexpected results. Price recently attended a conference where a geologist from the Northern Territory Geological Survey (NTGS) presented the results of a nationwide stream sediment sampling program.  “Through this study they’ve identified a number of new provinces for particular elements that haven't been recognized before,” he says.

“They were saying, ‘this province here, near Alice Springs, and this province up here, we didn't realize that this element is occurring in abundance within stream sediments in that area. We would recommend, if you're interested, to have a look in this area.’”

The payoff for the government can be years – or even decades – down the road, in the form of more exploration activity and eventually more producing mines paying taxes and stimulating economic activity.

Admittedly, the data can go stale, over the years and decades: Beilhartz holds up expanded geophysical survey coverage and better understanding of orebodies as a reason for government teams to revisit previously-surveyed areas and update the data.

“In Ontario's case, a lot of old areas that have only seen mapping in the 40s and 50s. There's a lot of updating that can be done in the North-Eastern Ontario region,” he says.
“For gold and other minerals as well, deposit models have changed a lot in the last 40 years. They're finding deposits in areas that 20, 30 years ago people were saying ‘there's nothing in that area. Why should we look there?”.

In a way, Trelawney is a living example of both benefiting from improved understanding of orebodies and of spurring that understanding on. Rather than the high-grade, low-tonnage Archaean gold deposits common the Greenstone Belt of Northern Ontario, Côté Lake is a low-grade, high-tonnage porphyry-style deposit, a deposit type previously not thought to exist in the area. Beilhartz says that Trelawney sought advice from the OGS staff geologists when the company was trying to select the correct deposit model for Côté Lake.

“After the discovery, their more general and academic experience was very useful in helping define what type of deposit we were looking at,” he explains.

Brian Atkinson, a Regional Resident Geologist with the OGS and one of the people Trelawney asked for advice, says that now that there is unequivocal evidence of this type of deposit in the region, explorers will know to include the appropriate model in their analysis and structure their exploration programs accordingly. How will they know? By asking their Resident Geologist, of course.

This access to the government’s experts is a service Beilhartz highlights as very valuable.
The ability to not only use static survey data or look at assessment filings but to also contact the scientists for advice is a benefit Beilhartz greatly appreciates.

“The government geologists are always available to talk to, no matter whether you're exploring in an area or not, they're always very helpful with ideas and theories of where you should explore in Ontario.  Even if you're a junior company coming to Ontario and you say you want to look for this particular type of deposit, they'll help you in targeting areas of the province where you can focus your efforts,” he says.

Nor is the geologists’ advice limited to broad, region-sized decisions. Atkinson points to drill hole spacing as one – potentially very expensive – decision that would change based on the deposit model. The challenge of a drill program is to get the maximum amount of information about your deposit while drilling the smallest number of oh-so-expensive drill holes possible. In the case of Côté Lake, Atkinson says, the drill holes were spaced about 100m apart. But try that with an Archaean-type deposit?

“You could hide a mine between these two drill holes. It's very high-grade, but very small.”

Little wonder then that Beilhartz has so much positive to say about the OGS scientists’ help.

If you’re a junior in search of a promising area to explore, or even if you’ve already made a discovery but could use a different perspective on your deposit, the local geological survey office may be a good place to turn to. Atkinson points out that virtually every country has a geological survey office, many of which make survey data available. Atkinson notes that while most charge for the data and consultations, Ontario offers both for free. This strategy that seems to be paying off for the province in the form of exploration activity: According to Atkinson, some 330 companies had spent more than $1 billion on exploration in the province in 2011, a record high.

“As long as prices of metals and commodities remain high, we'll keep seeing lots of exploration and new discoveries,” he says. Which ultimately is the whole point.

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