“Without critical minerals, there is no energy transition.”Michael Goehring
B.C.’s mining sector is bracing for its moment in the spotlight, as the critical minerals it produces for batteries become a renewed high priority for the provincial, federal and United States governments.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s budget this week went big on investment in clean energy technology, including a 30 per cent refundable tax credit for new machinery and equipment used to extract, process or recycle critical minerals.
The goal is to help spur the extraction of minerals used for electric vehicle batteries, solar panels, wind turbines, electronics, wiring, chargers and other technologies needed as B.C. and Canada try to decarbonize the economy and hit pollution reduction targets.
“Without critical minerals, there is no energy transition,” said Michael Goehring, CEO of the Mining Association of B.C.
“Without critical minerals there are no batteries, no electric vehicles, no solar panels, no wind turbines. It’s only been in the last two years or so, and it really came to the fore at (the UN Climate Change Conference) in 2021, that we have a shortage of critical minerals globally.”
‘BC is leaning into this moment’
Canada has 31 critical minerals, but some of the best known are lithium, cobalt, nickel graphite, copper, aluminium, zinc and some rare earth elements.
B.C. is Canada’s largest producer of copper, which is essential for electric vehicles, as well as solar panels and wiring.
It’s also the second-largest producer of silver, used in solar panels, and its smelters produce some of the lowest-carbon aluminium in the world. Teck Resource’s smelter in Trail is one of the world’s largest zinc and lead smelting and refining complexes.
“Our booming mining sector provides the crucial minerals necessary for transition to a low carbon economy,” Premier David Eby said earlier this month.
“In fact, Canada is the only country with all the critical minerals needed to support our net-zero future. International investors increasingly put a premium on high standards and strong democratic institutions in deciding where to invest. B.C. is leaning into this moment with strong values, and a focus on providing business predictability.”
Sourcing minerals national security priority
Canada and the U.S. have made sourcing critical minerals within North America a top priority for national security in response to supply chain disruptions caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well increasingly tense relations with China.
U.S. President Joe Biden made clean technology the centrepiece of his $500 billion Inflation Reduction Act, and during a visit to Canada this month raised this country’s wealth of untapped critical minerals — many of which are located in B.C. — as an area of crucial partnership.
“We greatly need Canada in terms of the minerals that are needed,” said Biden, whose country has a law that requires 50 per cent of EV battery components be made in North America to qualify for tax credits.
“We don’t have the minerals to mine. You can mine them. You don’t want to produce — I mean, you know, turn them into product. We do,” said Biden.
Trudeau said “the world is understanding they can no longer rely on places like China or Russia” and “that they can rely on Canada to be not just a purveyor of ores, but of finished materials” as well.
The Trudeau government courted Volkswagen, which announced this month it was building its first battery cell plant outside Europe in Canada, in part due to the large mining sector for lithium, nickel and cobalt.
BC’s $12 billion mining sector
B.C. currently has 17 large operating mines and two smelting operations, accounting for $12.6 billion in revenue last year, 35,000 jobs and 25 per cent of the province’s goods exports.
There are seven near-term new mines or mine extensions under consideration in the province. Most recently, the government approved Artemis Gold’s Blackwater $1.4 billion gold and silver mine in northern B.C. that had support from local Indigenous nations.
Prior to that, the last two open pit mines were Red Chris gold and copper in 2014, and Mount Milligan in 2013.
New template for resource development
Artemis followed what is now the B.C. government’s new template for natural resource projects: The smallest carbon footprint possible using clean electricity, and partnerships with local First Nations.
A second tranche of 10 advanced critical mineral development mines are expected to go through B.C.’s environmental approval process in the next two to three years, which will include more copper, gold, nickel and Niobium, used in jet engines and fusion reactors.
There’s also more steelmaking coal planned, which while not on the critical minerals list, is required for electric vehicles and electricity transmission towers (of which BC Hydro is expected to begin building in earnest).
Goehring said FPX Nickel Corp. is currently studying the potential to develop the world’s largest integrated nickel-sulphate facility in B.C., which would produce battery-grade material that would flow directly into the EV battery supply chain in Canada and North America, satisfying approximately 17 per cent of the North American demand in future decades.
Mining’s dark history
On the flip side though, mining is not pretty. And while the sector has plans to be net zero by 2050, it is also not particularly environmentally friendly either.
Many British Columbians still likely have the image of the Mount Polley mine in their minds from 2014, when the tailings pond near Likely, B.C., collapsed sending 24 million cubic metres of mine waste into Quesnel Lake and nearby waterways in what was the largest environmental mining disaster in Canadian history.
Mining regulations strengthened
The province has since strengthened mining regulations, inspections and clean-up provisions.
Goehring said the sector has some of the lowest emissions in the world, and its investors, along with governments, are pushing it to decarbonize using battery electric haul trucks in the future, as well as biodiesel and hydrogen fuels.
But the sector needs electricity. It’s the same call that B.C.’s liquefied natural gas producers have made, urgently asking the B.C. government to build more transmission lines to places like the north coast so that operations can connect to the grid, meet environmental targets, and gain provincial approval.
“Getting a new mine into operation and on track for net zero emissions requires one important thing, grid interconnection,” said Goehring.
The sector also needs faster permitting, which can sometimes take a decade or longer.
Premier Eby has pledged faster decisions, as well as more rapid electricity growth from BC Hydro.
“In the past it’s taken up to eight to 10 years to see a major mine permitted,” Energy and Mines Minister Josie Osborne said in an interview. “But Artemis gold was just permitted in 10 months… so a good example of how we’ve applied new resources to be able to speed up permitting.
“But it’s really important that companies are working together with First Nations on that, and that’s what’s happening.”
Mining about to ‘take off’
Osborne said the mining sector is “ready to take off” on batteries for wind turbines, solar panels and the transition to a clean economy. And she said the sector is embracing Indigenous partnerships, pointing to a collaboration inked between the Taku River Tlingit First Nation and Canagold Resources on Wednesday for the New Polaris gold exploration site.
Eby plans to take that message abroad to Asia for a trade mission in late May, where, among other things, he’ll be selling the idea of secure, environmentally-conscious, critical minerals from B.C. to partner countries like Japan.
“When they purchase those metals and minerals, they can have confidence that they are produced to the highest environmental and social standards, including in partnership with First Nations,” he said.
“It is a remarkable opportunity for us.”
For the mining sector, the geopolitical and economic stars have aligned in just the right position.
“We have not seen industrial policy like this in North America in decades,” said Goehring.
“We have a significant opportunity to make a huge contribution to climate action, and provide the critical minerals and elements that Canada, the United States, and other allies need to meet our climate, security and technology needs.”