British Columbia’s mineral exploration industry is rapidly evolving to meet the needs of a future low-carbon economy and develop more meaningful relationships with Indigenous people, attendees at AME Roundup 2022 heard.

By Kelsey Rolfe, AME’s 2022 Roundup Reporter

‘Engage. Connect. Evolve.’ was the theme of the conference this year, reflecting the spirit of continued change in the industry. And at the conference, itself change was afoot, with AME hosting its first in-person AND online conference. After a fully remote conference last year, AME Roundup was able to welcome over 2,300 people in-person at the Vancouver Convention Centre West and about 2,000 online delegates to the customized platform, all from 23 countries.

The conference celebrated a banner year for exploration and mining in 2021. The forecast total value of mineral production in British Columbia last year reached $12.6 billion, an all-time high, and total exploration spending reached $660 million, just shy of record-setting, according to data from the B.C. Geological Survey, which was released at AME Roundup.

“We have seen confidence in British Columbia as a top-tier mining jurisdiction, with major investments in British Columbia,” said Bruce Ralston, the provincial Minister of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation, in his Opening Ceremony remarks, adding that miners and mineral explorers had overcome “many challenges” in the past year to reach those milestones.

The road to net zero

The need for miners and mineral explorers to supply the key commodities of a future low-carbon economy — including copper, nickel, cobalt and rare earth elements — resonated throughout the conference.

Federal Minister of Natural Resources Jonathan Wilkinson said the country was looking for the mining sector to “spur innovation and build new supply chains for batteries and green infrastructure, zero-emission vehicles, renewable energy and clean power.” As a former clean-tech executive, he said, he knew the “immense power” of the low-carbon future and the “potential rewards that can come with being an early mover looking to seize these opportunities.”

It’s clear B.C. mineral explorers are aware of this imperative: roughly a third of exploration spending in the province in 2021 — more than $218 million — was on minerals that are on the federal government’s critical minerals list for a low-carbon economy.

Speakers throughout the conference also highlighted the importance of developing these projects with the highest environmental, social and governance standards. During the conference’s final session on ESG, Digbee Ltd. CEO and founder Jamie Strauss said strong ESG performance will make the difference between a “vibrant and successful” sector and one that is seen as increasingly unacceptable to stakeholders and the broader public, has a high cost of finance and will fail to recruit the best and brightest talent.

Mark Podlasly, director of economic policy and initiatives at the First Nations Major Projects Coalition, also stressed the importance of addressing Indigenous peoples’ needs and concerns around these projects.

“The call is by 2030 to have half of the vehicles in North America switched over to electric, and then up to 2040, 100 percent. To do that, the minerals you will need for batteries in the next eight years is 14 times the current world supply of nickel and 11 times copper,” he said. “It takes 10 to 15 years for the industry to get a mine approved and up and running; how are we going to get there if we do not have the risks removed from these investments?”

Developing partnerships with Indigenous communities

One key through-line at AME Roundup was the role the industry can play in reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. In her remarks at the Reconciliation Breakfast, former federal Minister of Justice and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould called on mining and mineral exploration companies to take a more active role in this work, by looking at how their economic agreements and relationships with Indigenous nations near their operations address the social and economic challenges of colonialism.

She also called for industry to play the role of an “in-betweener,” which she described as people or companies that build relationships “in ways that communities accept and trust” and challenge traditional philosophies and mandates.

Speakers at AME Roundup’s Gathering Place and ESG sessions, as well as other talks throughout the conference, highlighted the importance of developing meaningful relationships with Indigenous nations that incorporate their consent and rights.

“Where Indigenous peoples are full participants as equity shareholders, as procurement partners, as limited partners and joint ventures, we’re seeing much better projects with better results, with purpose and profits that allow our people to benefit from the stimulus of mineral exploration,” said Squamish Nation Chief Ian Campbell in his Opening Ceremony remarks.

Elizabeth Miller, vice-president of environmental and social responsibility at Seabridge Gold, discussed the company’s frequent, proactive and “meaningful” engagement with the local Nisga’a and Tahltan Nations and the Gitxsan Hereditary Chiefs Office regarding its KSM project, which included providing capacity funding, funding traditional knowledge and use studies and signing benefits agreements. The company also made approximately $300 million in design changes after listening to community concerns.

“We’ve been earning and maintaining the support of Indigenous groups. Once you gain a relationship it’s critical you keep working on those Indigenous relationships throughout the life of any project,” Miller said. “For a project to be successful, it has to involve the local communities, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous.”

Building relationships also involves working with Indigenous contractors and businesses. AME’s own Exploring Our Economy report, which examined the impact of mineral exploration on the B.C. economy and released during AME Roundup, found 21 percent of expenses across the study were with Indigenous-affiliated vendors, far surpassing a federal government goal of five percent by 2024. But as AME CEO and president Kendra Johnston pointed out, “there’s still room to move on that, considering Indigenous folks are in so many of the rural and remote areas we work in and are such important partners for being able to advance our projects.”

Technological innovation

AME Roundup 2022 also highlighted technological innovations that could create transformational change for the industry, including digital twins, machine learning and machine vision, and portable drills for exploration under cover.

In the conference’s theme session, Janina Elliott, global central technical lead at Seequent, spoke of the potential for digital twins — virtual representations of an object that act as its real-time digital counterpart across its life — in tailings storage facility management, which she said could allow for deeper learning and achieving modern ESG goals.

Greg Dipple, professor of geological sciences at the University of British Columbia, shared his research on the potential for ultramafic tailings to capture and mineralize carbon dioxide at scale. These tailings already interact naturally with CO2, but, if scaled up and employed at low-carbon mines that produce critical minerals, offer the opportunity for net-negative mining. In other words, he said, “mine operations producing environmental benefit.”

View the AME Roundup 2022 BY-THE-NUMBERS infographic.