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Fortescue chief executive Elizabeth Gaines. Photo credits: Billy Stokes/Diggers and Dealers

Fortescue Metals Group chief executive Elizabeth Gaines has told Diggers and Dealers audiences that the company has trained 3000 workers in autonomy as it introduced autonomous haulage across its entire Australian operations.

In June, Fortescue rolled out its 100th autonomous haul truck conversion at its Chichester Hub in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.

The company had also set a target to convert 175 machines to autonomous haulage at the Cloudbreak mine in the Pilbara region for mid-2020.

Gaines, speaking at the Diggers & Dealers Mining Forum, said workers were trained from driving in autonomous zones through to managing the company’s mine control systems.

There has been zero redundancy in the company’s transition to autonomous haulage, she continued.

“While technology and automation will be an important part of the future workforce, it shouldn’t come at the risk of jobs,” she said.

Ten per cent of Fortescue’s Australian workforce is made up of Aboriginal people, who represent 14 per cent of Fortescue’s workforce in the Pilbara region.

“We believe our diverse workforce is very integral to our success. We’re proud to be the number one ranking stock in the S&P ASX 100 Index with total shareholder returns of 266 per cent over the three years to June,” Gaines said.

Addressing mining’s focus on Aboriginal heritage management, the chief executive acknowledged that the destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters in the Pilbara should have never happened.

Gaines said Fortescue’s heritage management and engagement processes were based on seven mining native land access agreements and “many dozens” aboriginal agreements.

“(We have protected and avoided) almost 6000 heritage places since we began operations,” she said.

“Our native title partners are free to publicly speak about the heritage process and can openly object to heritage approvals if they wish to.”

Fortescue is advancing two major iron ore projects, Eliwana and Iron Bridge, along with Fortescue’s Pilbara Energy Connect project.

These would create up to 5000 jobs during construction and 1500 full time site positions once operational, according to Gaines.

She also flagged the potential in capitalising on the greater product flexibility provided by Eliwana and Iron Bridge.

“If we choose to, we can blend our premium Iron Bridge product across the breadth of our product range and that gives us greater flexibility and positions us to meet all market segments so that we can maximise value,” Gaines said.

Bulk earth works at Iron Bridge are close to 90 per cent complete, with the company now preparing for the construction of the project’s dry processing plant.

It will be a 22 million tonnes facility, matched with Fortescue’s planned increase in its material handling capacity at the Herb Elliott Port facility from 175 million tonnes a year to 210 million tonnes on a staged basis.

Both Iron Bridge and Eliwana are on track for their first iron ore ship and train in mid-2022 and this December, respectively.

During the Diggers and Dealers presentation, Gaines reiterated Fortescue’s plan to ride the emerging prospects of hydrogen export.

Earlier this year, Fortescue chairman Andrew Forrest signed an agreement that would provide the company with access to Indonesia and Papua New Guinea’s hydropower resources. These are known to have the potential to create green hydrogen.

Japan, Korea and China are Fortescue’s three most prospective markets, Gaines said.

She added: “Fortescue can be at the forefront of hydrogen exports. … We are progressing our plans to develop hydrogen technologies.”

Fortescue had announced a $32 million investment in renewable hydrogen mobility, which included the deployment of hydrogen-fuelled passenger coach to replace the existing diesel fleet at the Christmas Creek iron ore mine in Western Australia from mid-2021.

The company is also set to invest $800 million in its Pilbara Energy Connect project, which encompasses transmission infrastructure, solar and gas generation and large battery storage.

This will be integrated with the Chichester solar gas hybrid project to produce 25–30 per cent of the company’s stationary energy across its mining operations through solar.

Fortescue aims to achieve net zero operational emissions by 2040, which will be preceded by a 26 per cent reduction in emissions from existing operations in 2030.