Canada needs to build more mines, pronto.
So says Pierre Gratton, president and CEO of the Mining Association of Canada (MAC).
In his speech to the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade earlier this month Gratton posed the question: How can Canada build more mines faster?
The need is driven by a World Bank prediction stating 500 per cent more minerals will potentially be needed by 2040, with about half that demand coming from electrical vehicles and battery storage.
“Let me remind you of the sheer quantities of minerals and metals that are needed for the energy transition alone,” says Gratton.
The average electric vehicle battery contains about 185 kilograms of minerals, including lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese, graphite, copper, iron and aluminum. Canada produces all of those minerals and also has large, untapped reserves, Gratton says.
“You can’t do an energy transition without our products. There’s a very strong case for Canada to be a key supplier,” he says.
But challenges exist.
The mining industry is sometimes painted as an environmental bad guy, where tailings ponds contaminate the wilderness, acid mine drainage destroys water sources and closed mines continue to pollute long after their decommissioning.
Gratton, MAC president since 2011, is addressing those perceptions.
“Mining is changing and has been changing for the better over the years,” he says. “We’re a very different sector today. Customers buying mining products from Canada can have every confidence that they were mined responsibly, to the world’s highest standards, and with fewer greenhouse gas emissions than anywhere else in the world.”
Towards Sustainable Mining is one such program touted by Gratton. TSM, a mandatory part of MAC membership, assists mining companies with the management of environmental and social requirements. It’s the first mining standard in the world to require site-level reporting with external verification.
He also points to the mining industry’s very active consultation with communities where mines, or proposed mines, exist.
“We have over 500 agreements with Indigenous communities and mines,” he says.
Impact Benefit Agreements that address issues such as employment, training and procurement have been embraced by Canada’s mining industry.
But a shortage of people opting for work has to be handled, Gratton says.
The need is driven by not enough new workers entering the field to replace retirees, declining enrolment in post-secondary mining programs, a low mining unemployment rate (less than one per cent in July 2023) and difficulty attracting and retaining underrepresented groups. One goal is to have a 30 per cent female workforce, Gratton says.
In Saskatchewan, BHP’s Jansen potash mine, wants to have a 50 per cent female workforce by the time the operation opens in 2026.
One further minefield is the double-barrelled regulatory/permitting landscape. It can take up to 15 years before a new mine is operational in Canada.
Hold-ups exist due to both provincial and federal regulations around natural resources, the environment and First Nations.
“There’s a tremendous amount of duplication,” Gratton says.
While mining falls under provincial jurisdictions, the federal government is also involved due to legislation such as the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, Impact Assessment Act and Fisheries Act.
The federal government can be needlessly heavy-handed and arrogant, Gratton says.
“Why can’t the federal government take a step back?”
A University of B.C. professor of mining engineering says starting a new mine is not getting easier and he’s not optimistic about the future.
“It may even be harder to build a mine,” says Scott Dunbar. “In Canada, the deposits are good, but not that good. And they’re in difficult places.”
Often, mines are in remote locations, without roads, power and accommodation/services. To become operational, such infrastructure has to be built. The cost to create a working mine can range up to several billion dollars.
Sometimes, outlandish ideas are floated, such as a plan to use a dirigible airship instead of a road to move mine production, he says. The Hybrid Air Vehicles’ Airliner 50 is said to carry a 50-tonne payload, with 30-metre cabin lengths and a 2,200 kilometre range.
As well, weather in northern Canada adds more costs. At a northwest B.C. mine, for example, there are huge water problems, compounded by very heavy snowfalls.
In northern Ontario, the much vaunted Ring of Fire is actually swamp/peat land, which, while it has rich deposits of nickel, copper, zinc and chromium, would be very difficult to access and mine. The area is also home to First Nations people who must be consulted.
And often what lies below the surface is based on an educated guess.
“You never know what you have till you open it up,” Dunbar says. “It’s a huge risk.”
He notes, compared to South America, Canada’s mineral deposits are not as concentrated.
In Chile, the El Teniente copper mine, one of the world’s largest, produces copper that’s 0.62 per cent pure; B.C.’s Highland Valley copper mine produces a product that’s 0.35 per cent pure.
Dunbar doesn’t think the permitting/regulatory process is a big impediment, but he does agree many metals are needed for a non-fossil fuel future.
“The amount of metals needed for the energy transition is staggering,” he says.
Currently, about 22-million tonnes of copper are mined each year for electric vehicles, solar industry and wind turbines. By 2050, more than 100-million tonnes will be required for solar components and wind turbines alone.
There is a huge environmental impact from mining deeper, Dunbar says.
In Yellowknife, cleaning up the Giant Mine will cost the federal government $4.38-billion due a very complicated process that includes containing 237,000 tonnes of toxic arsenic trioxide dust.
In 2021, Canada produced 60 minerals and metals at almost 200 mines and 6,500 sand, gravel and stone quarries, according to Natural Resources Canada. The value was $55.5-billion.
The top three mineral producing provinces, by value of minerals, were B.C., Quebec and Ontario.
Canada is the global leader in potash production and ranks among the top five global producers for diamonds, gemstones, gold, indium, niobium, platinum group metals, titanium concentrate and uranium.