WASHINGTON, Dec. 7, 2011 — A Defense Department task force working with the U.S. Geological Survey is modernizing Afghanistan’s geological enterprise so the war-torn nation can stimulate international investment in its rich deposits of minerals, fossil fuels and rare-earth elements.
The DOD Task Force for Business and Stability Operations is providing state-of-the-art equipment and, with USGS, training for geophysicists at the Afghanistan Geological Survey so the government eventually can use modern tools to conduct and oversee mineral exploration there.
“We’ve been working with the USGS on this program since September 2009,” Emily Scott, task force director of natural resource development, told American Forces Press Service.
“We just signed another interagency agreement to continue working with the USGS on geophysics capacity training for the next fiscal year,” she added. The fiscal year ends Sept. 30, 2012.
After several months of mainly classroom training for five Afghan scientists at the USGS in Denver, Colo., Scott said, “this year we will focus on [getting the scientists] out in the field in Afghanistan and collecting ground geophysics data with the equipment we purchased.”
Geophysics is the study of Earth’s shape, gravitation, magnetism, internal structure, composition and other features. For the purpose of mining, geophysicists can figure out what’s in the ground by measuring characteristics of the surface material and the subsurface rocks.
These include the chemical composition of the surface material and, for subsurface rocks, electrical conductivity, tiny variations in the earth’s magnetic and gravity fields, and how different rocks absorb light, called infrared spectral reflectance.
“Each rock has its own characteristic density,” Dr. Victor F. Labson, director of the USGS Crustal Geophysics and Geochemistry Science Center in Denver, told American Forces Press Service.
“By understanding the density distribution and understanding which rocks have what density — and we [know] that from a hundred years of laboratory measurements — we can then discern what sort of rocks are in the subsurface from the gravity variations.”
The same thing is true for magnetics, conductivity and light absorption, he added — each kind of rock responds differently to each measuring instrument.
These properties can be measured on the ground and, since 1943 when magnetic anomaly detectors were used on planes over the ocean to hunt for enemy submarines during World War II, from the air.
The Afghan geophysicists are being trained in ground geophysics but the real need is to enable them to work with companies that invest in exploring Afghan mineral deposits and bring in their own contractors to do the flights and data collection.
“There’s a huge commercial industry that supports airborne geophysics,” Labson said, “So we hope they’ll have the understanding and the ability to write [specifications for and to monitor] contracts, and then interpret the data resulting from airborne surveys.”
The USGS has just completed and published on its website more than 20 highly prospective area reports for deposits in Afghanistan that seem to have particular potential, he said.
“The idea is to help create a stable economy, that’s really the underlying mission of the task force,” Labson said.
“Developing the resources would be an economic boost,” he added, “but there are a lot of jobs associated with it as well.”
Afghanistan’s Ministry of Mines, supported by the task force, made progress on its goals yesterday in London at an international conference called Mines and Money.
There, the ministry opened tender processes, or auctions, for exploration and later exploitation of four project areas with deposits containing gold and copper.
“Afghanistan is a geologically rich country,” Minister of Mines Wahidullah Shahrani said yesterday in a statement. “Assessments of only a fraction of the country’s land area indicate the potential for considerable mineral resources.”
What this means, Scott explained, “is that international investors will compete for each deposit for the next year.”
The companies will have until March, she added, “to submit what we call their expressions of interest, at which time we’ll begin qualifying the companies and determining who’s qualified to bid. Then they’ll be invited to put bids together for each deposit.” The four copper and gold tenders will be marketed in parallel, Scott said. A lithium deposit in the Herat province will be marketed separately.
Of the first four deposits, one is a copper deposit in Herat province called Shaida, Zarkashan is a copper and gold deposit in Ghazni province, Badakhshan is a gold deposit in the country’s north, and Balkhab is a copper deposit in Sar-I-Pul and Balkh provinces. “These are exploration deposits„” Scott said, “so at this point the companies will have to come in and do ground geophysics, airborne geophysics and drilling in order for them to come to a value on the deposit at that level.” She added: “Copper and gold deposits of this size tend to be worth billions of dollars.”
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