Amid talk of a green technology mining boom, Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson reports ‘record’ mining investment in the province
Julia-Simone Rutgers, The Narwhal
Over the past four years, the Manitoba government has been seeking a resurgence in its century-old mining industry.
While progress has been slow — owing in part to financial downturns in the pandemic — there are signs mining in Manitoba is on the cusp of something of a boom.
“The world has discovered that the combination of Manitoba’s critical mineral and strategic resources, our affordable, reliable, renewable energy and our highly skilled workforce will be key to creating the materials and products that will drive the world’s energy transition,” Premier Heather Stefanson said during November’s throne speech. “This is best illustrated by the record investment by global companies in mineral exploration in Manitoba last year.”
With green technologies, including electric vehicles, prompting a boom in critical mineral production, Manitoba is positioning itself as a global leader in mineral resources, even as some conservation advocates ring alarm bells about the industry’s potential impacts on the landscape.
Manitoba’s sustainable development policies for mining lack clarity and consistency, according to Heather Fast at the Manitoba Eco-Network. While there has been “lots of discourse on economic and political benefits” of mining, she said, there hasn’t been much discussion of “the environmental piece.”
At the same time, many northern First Nations are looking to take a leadership role in the mining industry, moving beyond consultation to partnerships that balance environmental protection and local economic sustainability.
Is this boom the result of a push for green technology?
“Critical minerals are the building blocks for the green and digital economy,” the federal government has said of its list of 31 critical minerals. Metals like cobalt are used in hydrogen fuel cells, batteries and jet engines; nickel is a key component of electric-vehicle batteries, health-care technologies, solar panels and aerospace technology; graphite is used in electric car fuel cells, rechargeable batteries and brake systems.
According to Jamie Kneen, a national program lead with Canadian industry watchdog Mining Watch, the critical mineral list has led to “huge hype” in the mining industry across the board. That hype, he said, is “driven by the energy transition to support climate action,” with the critical mineral list creating a “promotional machine run amok” for the mining industry.
“It’s great [for industry] because it’s bulletproof,” Kneen said. “You can’t criticize it because it’s for the good of the climate.”
Of the 31 critical minerals, few have received as much global attention in recent years as lithium. The highly reactive metal is among Canada’s top-six priorities for mineral development under its critical mineral strategy. Because it is a key component of rechargeable batteries — used in laptops, cellphones, electric cars and even power grids — lithium demand (and pricing) has spiked, dropped and spiked again since 2017.
That boom and bust in demand projections have helped spur the frenzy of new exploration investments, Kneen explains. But Canada has produced very little lithium to date; the only active lithium mine in the country — the Tanco Mine — is in Manitoba.
Demand for critical minerals like lithium are set to skyrocket as countries across the globe progress toward carbon-reduction goals — specifically when it comes to transportation. Canada, for example, aims to make all new vehicles zero-emission by 2035, increasing the demand for minerals like lithium, nickel and copper. Lithium demand could increase six-fold compared to 2021 production by 2030, according to projections from the International Energy Agency. Nickel and cobalt are expected to see rising demand, too.
But those demands could change as new vehicle and battery technologies evolve, Kneen said. Cobalt already took a sharp downturn in projected demand, and experts aren’t sure if lithium will follow suit in the coming years.
Still, the mining industry operates with a “gold-rush mentality,” Kneen said. Companies will spend heavily in the exploration phase, hoping to secure a windfall, despite knowing a small handful of projects will succeed.
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