By Savanna Kirshfelt
British Columbia is recognised globally for its exceptional copper porphyry and zinc deposits, but in the future, these primary deposits could also be important sources for the critical secondary ‘green’ minerals required to build low carbon energy generation and storage technologies. Metals such as silver, cadmium and indium are often by-products of lead, zinc, gold and copper mining. If demand continues to follow the predicted upward trend, these by-product metals could become important economic factors during mine development in BC.
Demand on the rise
A 2017 World Bank report predicts “significant changes for the minerals and metals market” as low carbon technologies take over energy markets. While prices and production will continue to experience short-term volatility, the overall trend is an increasing demand for so-called green minerals, including aluminum, cobalt, copper, lead, nickel, platinum group metals, rare earth metals, silver and zinc.
Canada ranked in the top ten countries for global cadmium, cobalt, copper, indium, molybdenum, nickel, platinum, palladium, silver, titanium, zinc and aluminum smelter production—key metals used in wind, solar and energy storage technologies – in 2015. Canada produces 14 of the 19 metals and minerals needed to build solar photovoltaic panels, including six critical materials.
Cobalt, for example, is a major component in lithium-ion batteries. Most of the world’s cobalt supply is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where mining is linked to child labour and human rights abuses. Much like how the Canadian diamond industry was able to market its diamonds as conflict-free, Canada has the potential to be a socially responsible cobalt producer. In Ontario, First Cobalt owns and operates the only permitted North American cobalt refinery capable of producing battery-grade materials.
Proudly Made in BC
With its large supply of clean energy, established mining industry and proximity to Asia, BC is in a unique position within the global market. In an effort to limit carbon emissions, companies such as Apple and Toyota are willing to pay a premium for products with a lower carbon footprint. Existing facilities can also be upgraded to more efficiently capture secondary minerals during processing. Two world-class operations capitalizing on this are Rio Tinto’s aluminum smelter in Kitimat and Teck’s lead-zinc smelter in Trail. Rio Tinto claims their Kitimat smelter “produces aluminum with one of the lowest carbon footprints in the world” and Teck has expanded indium production at its Trail smelter operations in response to the rising demand for indium, used for thin film solar technology.
Several exploration companies are investigating BC’s cobalt potential. Cruz Cobalt Corp. have the War Eagle cobalt prospect near Cranbrook and Cardero Resource Corp. see “excellent” nickel-cobalt potential on their Kootenay Project. Also in southeast BC, the presence of secondary minerals could make exploration projects like Margaux Resources’ advance-stage Jackpot zinc-lead-silver property—hosted within the Kootenay Arc complex just 40 kilometres north of Teck’s Pend Oreille lead-zinc mine in Washington State—a more attractive investment.
Taking the next step
In the CleanBC climate action plan released by the provincial government in December 2018, the low-carbon industrial strategy is focused on “positioning BC as a destination for new investment and industry looking to meet the growing global demand for low-carbon products, services, and pollution-reducing technologies.”
According to Dan Woynillowicz, the policy director for Clean Energy Canada, the provincial government has recognized “the opportunity to produce resources and products for the global marketplace that are the cleanest in the world, in part by capitalizing on the province’s clean electricity and in electrifying as much of the operations as possible.”
Social and environmental barriers to overcome
Despite BC’s advantageous positioning, there are still barriers—both social and environmental—that need to be addressed for the province to be a significant player in future green mineral production. Woynillowicz feels that overcoming these barriers will require a concerted effort from the provincial and federal governments, indigenous leaders and the mining industry.
“If British Columbia wants to try to capitalize on this opportunity there would need to be a lot of cooperation and collaboration and looking at what kind of systems we need to have in place,” said Woynillowicz, “Whether that’s from a regulatory perspective, or in terms of how companies engage with communities, and how these communities engage with other governments and with the industry around the sharing of the benefits, so that we have a system where there’s the certainty that’s required for capital to actually be invested in the province.”