British Columbia·In Depth

Demand for minerals used in electric vehicles, wind, solar power a boon for B.C.'s mining industry

Exploration for minerals in B.C. needed for the world’s transition to a low-carbon future has accelerated over the past two years, as the province’s mining industry hopes to demonstrate its commitment to the environment and reconciliation with First Nations.

Spending on exploration for nickel, copper, silver $500 million in 2020, $700 million in 2021

A piece of nickel about 3 centimetres in size. The metal, of which there are significant deposits in B.C., is in demand for use in batteries for electric vehicles. (Materialscientist/Wikipedia)

Exploration for minerals in B.C. needed for the world's transition to a low-carbon future has accelerated over the past two years, as the province's mining industry hopes to demonstrate its commitment to the environment and reconciliation with First Nations.

"If we produce responsibly, those minerals and metals here in British Columbia, we have an outsized opportunity to provide those to a world that is seeking to transition to a lower carbon future," said Michael Goehring, president and CEO of the Mining Association of B.C.

The association represents more than 40 companies and 30,000 workers who mine for copper, coal, zinc, silver, gold, lead and molybdenum.

Goehring said provincial regulations overseeing the industry, the province's clean hydroelectric power, and collaboration with First Nations make B.C. unique in its ability to responsibly meet an expanding demand for minerals needed to build electric vehicles, wind turbines and solar panels.

Goehring said B.C.'s mines and smelters emit much lower levels of greenhouse gasses compared to those in other jurisdictions.

'Boom times'

A recent World Bank report said demand for minerals needed for low-carbon technologies could increase by 500 per cent by 2050 and that responsible mining, with environmental safeguards, would be required if global climate goals were to be met.

In 2020 more than $500 million was spent in exploration in the province, according to B.C.'s Association for Mineral Exploration (AME). In 2021, exploration expenditures grew to nearly $700 million.

Kendra Johnston, president and CEO of the association, said all the activity is being done progressively.

"We have some of the strongest environmental, social and governance regulations in the world here in British Columbia," she said.

Copper, which is used as a conductor for wind power, is in demand along with silver and molybdenum for solar panels.

Holdings of nickel in B.C. are now sought after for use in batteries for electric cars in addition to being used to produce stainless steel.

The Baptiste zone of the Decar Nickel District in Central B.C., where the FPX Nickel Corp. is hoping to unlock the third largest undeveloped nickel deposit in the world. (FPX Nickel Corp.)

Martin Turenne, president and CEO of FPX Nickel Corp., said he hopes his company's Baptiste Nickel Project, located northwest of Prince George, could become a global supplier of nickel.

He said it's the third largest undeveloped nickel deposit in the world, and if the project can move beyond exploration and study to extraction, it could produce up to 100 million pounds or more than 45 million kilograms of nickel each year.

Over the past 15 years, nickel has increased in price from about $2 per pound to $24 per pound.

"Yes these are certainly boom times for the mining industry in this province," said Turenne.

Despite improvements to provincial regulations, oversight and progressive practices from miners themselves, the province is still dogged by negative headlines around mining such as the 2014 Mount Polley mine disaster, the largest environmental mining disaster in Canadian history.

'Bring mining into the 21st century'

MiningWatch Canada, which advocates for environmental and social responsibility in the mining industry, said B.C. is taking steps to improve regulations.

"We have a government in B.C. that I think is actively interested in trying to bring mining into the 21st century," said Jamie Kneen with the mining watchdog.

Still, MiningWatch Canada wants more stringent rules for companies that pollute to pay for mitigation, and for changes to B.C.'s Mineral Tenure Act, which can allow unfettered access to land for prospectors and has led to disputes.

On B.C.'s North Coast, the Gitxaała First Nation launched a court challenge of an online registry the province uses to automatically grant mineral rights in its territory.

The province has constitutional requirements to consult with First Nations under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which it passed into law in November 2019.

AME's Johnston says the industry has been working hard to operate under UNDRIP in developing projects.

Turenne's nickel project in Central B.C., for example, lies on the traditional territories of the Binche Whu'ten and Tl'azt'en First Nations whose members have benefited from employment and business opportunities associated with the project.

"You shouldn't be setting foot on traditional territory without having meetings with nation representatives, clearly indicating what the work programs are and what environmental protections are going to be in place," said Turenne.

'Show the world'

Perhaps no better example of First Nations working in lock-step with mining companies is in the province's northwest region.

Chad Norman Alexander Day, president of the Tahltan Central Government, said Tahltan territories, located in the northwest of the province, make up 11 per cent of B.C.'s land base and are resource rich.

Day said around 50 per cent of mineral exploration dollars spent each year in B.C. are in Tahltan territories, where two mines currently operate.

The Brucejack mine, near Stewart B.C., is one of two active mines in the territories of the Tahltan First Nation. (Pretivm Resources Inc.)

The nation also has several equity stakes with mineral exploration or mining companies.

"We understand the importance to the country and to the global economy and we don't expect that to be slowing down anytime soon," he said.

The nation has developed what Day describes as a "holistic" approach to developing resource projects and partnering with mining companies, which respect values of the nation and the environment.

He said First Nations in B.C. and the province itself is set to benefit from the demand for minerals for a low-carbon future, and can be global leaders.

"I think British Columbia is well positioned to help show the world how to do things better with Indigenous people and mining."