The human race has turned over vast swathes of land and finding anywhere on our planet without evidence of extraction or agricultural management is exceedingly unlikely. Benedikt Steiner (ARSM CGeol EurGeol FHEA) and James Barnet (FGS, MGeol), exploration consultants with XPLORE GLOBAL Ltd., discuss one of these last remaining bastions of remoteness and why it won’t stay that way for long.
The Siberian Platform, eastern Russia – one of the few remaining frontiers for mineral exploration?
The Siberian Platform, covering a vast area of East Siberia (Russian Federation), represents one of the largest underexplored regions in Asia. A host of metallic and industrial mineral discoveries, however, suggest that the Siberian Platform holds significant potential for large undiscovered mineral deposits. The remoteness of the region, inhospitable winter climate, and major lack of modern infrastructure and mining methods, have long hampered exploration in this area.
These factors, along with the additional investment required and political uncertainties involved with operating in Russia, have deterred many international mining companies from considering the Siberian Platform as a viable region for exploration. However, as commodity prices continue to rise and modern mining methods are developed, increasing efficiency at a lower cost, the significant undiscovered mineral potential of the Siberian Platform could elevate the region to the forefront of mineral exploration and mining in decades to come.
Location and Regional Setting
The Siberian Platform comprises a significant portion of the Siberian Craton, extending from the Yenisey River in the west to the late Mesozoic Verkhoyansk Fold Belt in the east (Figure 1 and 2). In the south, the Siberian Platform is bordered by a chain of Palaeozoic-Mesozoic fold belts resulting from a long history of continental accretion, including the Baikal-Patom Fold Belt in the south-west and the Stanovoy Fold Belt in the south-east. The Late Palaeozoic Taimyr Fold Belt forms the northern border of the platform. The Siberian Platform separates the prolific oil and gas fields of the West Siberian Basin from the Russian Far East. The term “platform” is used throughout the literature, highlighting the evolution of the Siberian Craton from a marine, carbonate and evaporite-dominated platformal shelf in the Late Neoproterozoic and Early Palaeozoic, to more terrestrially influenced clastic marine and continental environments from the Middle-Late Palaeozoic onwards, as mountain ranges rose around the periphery of the platform.
History of Geological Research, Metallogeny and Mineral Deposits
Early exploratory work dates back to the early 1930s. Researchers from the Geological Survey/ Ministry of Geology and Mineral Resources of the SSSR and the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) mapped East Siberia, establishing the first regional stratigraphic subdivision of the Precambrian and Palaeozoic. However, in-depth geological work was not conducted until the late 1940-1950s, when oil and gas discoveries encouraged the Soviet government to explore for additional mineral and energy resources in East Siberia.
More recent work comprises structural interpretations based on the acquisition of regional 2D seismic data and regional basin screening studies conducted by the USGS in the 2000s. The principal motivation for exploring the vast territories of the Siberian Platform, however, is based on its potentially significant undiscovered hydrocarbon and mineral resources.
The first significant oil and gas discoveries were made in the early 1960s on the Nepa-Botuoba Arch, followed later that decade by the first gas discovery in the Lena-Vilyuy Basin. In addition to oil and gas deposits, the Siberian Platform is host to a plethora of metallic and industrial mineral occurrences and deposits. Whilst metallic mineral deposits are mainly located on Precambrian basement uplifts and around the margins of the platform, related to a long history of continental accretion, industrial minerals are found predominantly in the Phanerozoic sedimentary cover sequence of the Siberian Platform interior.
Principal metallogenic districts of the Siberian Platform include (Nalivkin, 1973; Nokleberg, 2010; Steiner and Barnet, 2017):
- Diamonds: Vilyuy, Olenek, Muna and Aldan regions. Diamonds are hosted in Permian-Jurassic kimberlite pipes, similar in nature to the South African Kimberley fields.
- Gold: ‘orogenic’ quartz-sulphide-gold vein/ stockwork mineralisation in carbonaceous (meta)sediments of the Northern Baikal mineralised belt (Patom Highlands); ‘orogenic’ disseminated gold-sulphide mineralisation hosted in carbonate-mica schists of the Yenisey Range (e.g., Olimpiada – Polyus Gold); and porphyry Au-(Cu) and epithermal Au of the Central Aldan Ore District (e.g., Lebediny, Kuranakh). Gold occurs both in primary and alluvial deposits.
- Copper: stratiform copper deposit hosted in quartz-carbonate sandstones in the Kalar District of the Zabaikalye Region (Udokan – Baikal Mining Company).
- Norilsk-type Nickel-Copper-Platinum Group Elements: deposits are located on the northwestern flank of the platform around the world-famous Norilsk mining camp.
- Coal (thermal and lignite): concentrated in Carboniferous, Permian, Jurassic, Early Cretaceous and Neogene formations of the: i.) Tunguska, ii.) Irkutsk, iii.) Baikal Rift, iv.) Lena, v.) Vilyuy, and vi.) South Yakutian (Aldan) coalfields.
- Potash, rock salt and gypsum: extensive, thick (several hundred metres) late Neoproterozoic to Cambrian halite and gypsum sequences were deposited across the central and southern portions of the Siberian Platform, making this region one of the most prospective areas for evaporitic industrial minerals. Deposits are related to platformal sedimentation from ~550-500 Ma, extending from the upper reaches of the Angara River to the Lena River area, as well as diapiric salt domes (Kempendyay, Kygyl-Tus, Kyundai) piercing through overlying Mesozoic sedimentary cover in the Vilyuy basin. The highest quality and thickest deposits were formed in restricted sub-basins across the southern part of the platform, where there was sufficient accommodation space for the development of thick halite beds. Diapiric salt domes of Devonian age are also found along the northern margin of the Siberian Platform around Port Nordvik on the Laptev Sea coast.
Current major exploration and development projects
Lacking a developed infrastructure in East Siberia, minerals were produced for local use only. Exploration success continued after the end of the SSSR and further prospective deposits were delineated. An example is the Sukhoi Log gold deposit in the Baikal-Patom region (Irkutsk Oblast), discovered in 1961, which was explored in the 1970s and currently proceeds through feasibility studies by operator Polyus Gold and Russian state conglomerate Roster. Similarly, Kopy Goldfields AB, Orsu Metals and Nordgold are currently working on a number of gold development projects with the aim of bringing these into production in the near future.
Siberia displays great potential for additional metallic and industrial mineral discoveries, as most areas are still unchartered in terms of modern exploration techniques and have received limited attention in terms of foreign investment. Considering ‘trendy’ base and precious metal commodities, regions of interest are focused across the Norilsk, Aldan Shield, Baikal-Patom and Krasnoyarsk/ Yenisey Range regions. However, mineral companies still face operating and administrative challenges, including long winters, remote and undeveloped infrastructure in parts of East Siberia, and obtaining mineral extraction licenses through technical audits of resource estimates by the State.
Legal framework, licensing and available data
Mining and mining rights are governed by the Russian Federation and its principal bodies, whereas applicable legislation comprises the Subsoil Law and the Laws on Dangerous Production Facilities and Precious Metals/ Stones. The Russian legislation considers a number of commodities, such as diamonds, gold and uranium, as metals of ‘federal or strategic significance’. In practice, this means that such deposits can only be held and exploited by Russian companies and therefore excludes foreign investors from developing mining operations.
As in many other countries, exploration and mining licenses are required to explore for and operate mines. Mineral extraction and processing permits are authorised after a technical audit and approval of the deposit resource estimates carried out by Russia’s State Commission for Mineral Resources and Ore Reserves (GKZ). Historically, data secrecy acts and issues in providing ‘bankable’ resource estimates have hampered foreign investment, as the Russian system of reporting reserves, unlike its Western counterparts JORC and NI 43-101, is based on establishing technical drilling parameters to determine the calculated reserve figures and does not take into account market-based economic criteria. However, efforts are currently underway to incorporate Western resource reporting criteria in Russian feasibility studies and development projects. It is commonplace that the right to develop mining operations are sold to bidding parties during auctions.
Public domain data, particularly in English language, is only sparsely available (http://webmapget.vsegei.ru/index.html) and often restricted to governmental archives and universities. However, geological and geospatial data and literature have been compiled by a number of Western exploration firms.
Nalivkin, D.V., 1973. The Geology of the U.S.S.R. University of Toronto Press, 855p.
Nokleberg, W.J., Ed., 2010. Metallogenesis and tectonics of northeast Asia. USGS Professional Paper 1765, 624p.
Steiner, B.M., Barnet, J.S.K., 2017. Petroleum potential of the southern and eastern Siberian Platform, Russia: An evaluation of proven petroleum systems and directions for future exploration. XPLORE.GLOBAL, Exploration Targeting Series, 2, 77p. [online]
Ulmishek, G.F., 2001. Petroleum Geology and Resources of the Nepa-Botuoba High, Angara-Lena Terrace, and Cis-Patom Foredeep, Southeastern Siberian Craton, Russia. USGS Bulletin 2201-C, 19p.
Benedikt Steiner (ARSM CGeol EurGeol FHEA) is the MSc Programme Director of Mining and Exploration Geology at the Camborne School of Mines, UK, and consultant to the mining industry through his consultancy firm XPLORE GLOBAL Ltd.
James Barnet (FGS, MGeol) is currently completing a PhD at the Camborne School of Mines, UK, and Senior Geologist at XPLORE GLOBAL Ltd.
The authors have worked a cumulative 7 years on the geology and resource potential of the Siberian Platform and Russian Far East, resulting in a detailed report and extensive reference list, available since 2017.
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