­­Canada’s Minerals Strategy looks like a poorly thought-out pipe dream and a gift to corporations.

Currently less than 1% of the global fleet is electric, which means that 99% is yet to be built. Renewables currently make up only 4% of global energy source. In addition to electric vehicles the transition to renewables requires an exponential increase in solar panels, wind turbines and battery buffers for the electrical grid.

One can understand Canada’s enthusiasm to get on the “renewable train” to prosperity. The Canadian Critical MInerals Strategy from exploration to recycling: Powering the Green and Digital Economy for Canada and the Worldstates that ‘growing our supply of critical minerals and the products they go into presents a generational opportunity with domestic and global benefits. To fully seize this opportunity, we must ensure that value is added to the entire supply chain, including exploration, extraction, intermediate processing, advanced manufacturing, and recycling. We must create the necessary conditions for Canadian companies to grow, scale-up, and expand globally in markets that depend on critical materials”. Canada is offering generous incentives to mining companies to dig for minerals in remote regions, in sensitive ecosystems and peat bogs like the Breathing Lands.

The Ford government has announced a package of amendments to the province’s Mining Act intended to “reduce administrative burden” of developing new mines and “demonstrate responsiveness to feedback received from industry.” Ontario’s mining regulations are already weak, and provide very limited protection for Indigenous rights, and the environment.

The critical minerals strategy is linked to the Ford government’s recently launched auto sector strategy that hopes to see auto makers in Ontario producing 400,000 electric and hybrid vehicles annually by 2030, powered by batteries made in the province, using minerals extracted and processed in Ontario.

To that end, Ottawa and Ontario are handing out massive subsidies to corporations to build battery gigafactories. VW will receive production subsidies up to $13 billion. Ottawa is providing $700 million and Ontario $500 million in upfront construction support. The Stellantis deal caps production subsidies at $15 billion and both Ontario and Ottawa will provide $500 million each for construction supports. That’s a lot of taxpayer money. There will be more subsidies to come for mining companies, refineries, battery plants, and manufacturing of the end product.

The stated plan is to mine the minerals in Canada, produce the batteries and manufacture the vehicles for the transition to electric vehicles. It may sound bright green but is it feasible or desirable.

Let’s take a sober look at the facts

Global mineral surveys suggest Canada holds a tiny percentage of mineable worldwide reserves of critical minerals. Mineral reserves are known mineral deposits that are currently mined or hold some potential for extraction.

Canada has 2.5 % of lithium reserves worldwide. Alternative battery technologies that do not use lithium, like sodium-ion batteries, are being researched but are not yet viable or proven at a commercial scale, so lithium-ion will be the sole technology for EVs in the foreseeable future

Several companies are currently working to develop lithium projects from traditional hard rock mining to unconventional sources such as oilfield brines and industrial wastewaters. These projects range from early exploration to pre-production stage.

Quebec has 2 lithium projects that are said to be close to opening. Nemaska Lithium  when  it opens will be the largest lithium mine in North America. The mining site faced bankruptcy in 2019 due to cost overruns related to the complexity of mining in remote James Bay and was bought by foreign companies including Tesla supplier Livent. The mine which was approved by the band council has divided the Cree Nation.

The La Corne lithium mine has changed owners four times in the last 10 years, and has been responsible for serious and damaging spills, and filed for creditor protection twice — despite a $110-million investment from the provincial government. The mine is now owned by an Australian and US company. Anishinabeg First Nation in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region wants to lead its own environmental assessment of a lithium mining project.

Although not a current commercial producer of Rare Earth Elements (REE), Canada is host to several advanced exploration projects. Rare-earth metals are plentiful in the Earth’s crust. However, these elements tend to be dispersed and mixed in with other elements, making extraction and separation expensive, difficult and fraught with environmental risks. The environmental destruction of rear earth mineral mining in China is well known.  Mountain Pass, the only rare earth mine in the US., is not operational due to 60 pipeline ruptures that dumped an estimated 2,000 metric tons of wastewater containing radioactive thorium into the valley. Mining operations stopped shortly afterwards.

On a positive note, Project Cheetah, a Rare Earth Demonstration Project in the NWT, is developing a less environmentally destructive way to extract rare earth minerals. This process significantly reduces the amount of water and diesel used, and eliminates the use of chemicals and tailings from the mining process.

Cobalt is an extremely toxic mineral. Canada has 3% of extractable cobalt reserves worldwide. Cobalt production in Canada is a by product of nickel mining. The World bank forecasts that cobalt production will have to increase 500 percent in the next few decades to meet the growing demand for lithium-ion batteries. Cobalt-free batteries are being developed but need more testing and will take time to be produced at the scale needed.

Canada has .07% of world graphite production and 1.7% of reserves.

Canada has 1% of global copper reserves and currently 2.6% of global production. Every wind turbine has a massive copper cable that connects it to the power grid. That’s a lot of copper.  It’s estimated that off-shore wind turbines will need 5.5 megatons of copper over the next 10 years. There is push to develop aluminum alloys that could replace copper but will take time bring on line. Aluminum is made from bauxite which is not mined in Canada although we import it and process it to produce aluminum.

Current global mineral reserves hold only 10 to 15 % of metals needed to produce the first generation of batteries and wind turbines to replace the current system. Even with technology changes that will use less or different metals it will not be enough. Another sobering fact is that US EV-driven demand for lithium alone would require three times more lithium than is currently produced for the global market.

Mining is not easy. Canada’s plan to ramp up mining minerals could also benefit from a reality check.

  • it takes about 20 years to develop a discovered deposit into a mine
  • for every 1000 deposits discovered, only 1-2 become mines
  • for every 10 mines, 2-3 lose money and shut down
  • new mines, which are often in very remote areas require infrastructure (roads, rail, power supply, etc.) to be constructed.
  • energy for mining is primarily gas and diesel – a gas pipe is laid to a mining site (often in a remote area) to produce electricity, and diesel is the work horse for diggers and trucks that haul the ore
  • ore grades are decreasing – the lower the grade the more energy, potable water and chemicals it takes to mine it and the more environmentally destructive it is.   

While the battery giga plants are expected to be up and running in the next few years the minerals that are to be mined in Canada could take 15 to 20 years to bring on line if they come on line at all.  The push to fast-track mining is very worrisome because comprehensive environmental assessments will be compromised. The long history of toxic pollutants from mining, mining companies’ negligence in cleaning up closed mines, and the destructive effects to indigenous communities should worry Canadians.

While waiting for Canadian-mined minerals, gigafactories will have to purchase minerals on the global market where they will be competing with other countries that are trying to electrify their fleet and transition to renewables. China and Russia are among the biggest global sources of various critical minerals. Russia’s war in Ukraine and the sanctions on the country’s economy as well as escalating tensions with China will present problems in securing minerals on the global market. As demand escalated the cost of the minerals will sky-rocket.

To add to the madness, car manufactures both in the US and Europe are shifting their production of EVs to SUVs and trucks rather than sedans. Large EVs are gobbling up the limited supply of essential battery minerals that could otherwise be used for EV sedans, e-bikes and electric buses and wind turbines and solar panels.

None of this makes sense.  There are not sufficient minerals for the ‘green’ transition.as it is currently envisioned. Mining causes massive destruction to the environment, biodiversity loss and contamination of land and water. And mining companies have a long history of not cleaning up the mess, often highly toxic, they leave behind. If minerals are the new oil, we know how that worked out.

We need minerals for batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines. They should be mined with caution and used only for the essentials needed to transition away from fossil fuels The limited minerals we have should be used for the benefit of the many not the few.  That means prioritizing batteries for public transportation, delivery and work vans, and a much-reduced EV fleet of small cars. No one needs a Hummer pick-up with a battery that weighs close to 3,000 pounds.

Gail Fairley is a member of SCAN!’s Growth/Degrowth webinar team.

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