Simply put, there is no energy transition without critical minerals, and this is why critical mineral supply chain resilience is an increasing priority for advanced economies.

Jonathan Wilkinson, Minister of Natural Resources

In April 2021, Canada announced its list of 31 critical minerals and, in April 2022, the federal government introduced $3.8 billion for its Critical Minerals Strategy, leading to tax credits, calls for projects, and excitement throughout the industry. According to the strategy, Canada’s “early efforts should focus on the following six minerals: lithium, graphite, nickel, cobalt, copper, and rare-earth elements.”

On the global critical mineral landscape, British Columbia is well positioned. We have a storied history of mining, a robust exploration industry and free public geoscience data, which we can leverage to find and responsibly extract the minerals and metals needed to transition to lower-carbon energy systems across the globe.

Having copper on Canada’s critical minerals list is important to BC as Canada’s largest copper producer; copper exports are significant to BC’s economy. Pacific Ridge Exploration optioned BC’s Kliyul copper-gold project and their director Gerry Carlson said copper grades in BC aren’t as high as in Chile or Peru, but BC’s porphyry deposits can have good gold credits, we’re a stable jurisdiction, and we have great exploration potential, which makes BC desirable to investors.

Nickel also made the national list and is a base metal of interest in BC exploration. FPX Nickel has the Decar nickel project in central BC. Their CEO, Martin Turenne said, “We know based on our engagement with downstream participants in the EV battery supply chain … that they are very keen on trying to source nickel units from ‘friendly’ countries and we think we will play an important role in that going forward.”

FPX Nickel’s Decar nickel project (moving toward a preliminary feasibility study in 2023), Inomin Mines’ Beaver magnesium-nickel-cobalt property (in advanced exploration) and Giga Metals Corporation’s Turnagain nickel property (at the preliminary economic assessment stage) are all nickel projects to watch.

Nickel and copper are main critical minerals at mines in BC, but many other critical minerals will likely be co-produced, meaning BC can also leverage its long mining history to find unusual critical minerals.

Adrian Hickin, Chief Geologist, BC Geological Survey said, “Co-production may drive industry to recover critical minerals. In addition to base and precious metals, some minerals systems may contain other critical minerals and could potentially be co-produced. If [the less common minerals] can be extracted economically and efficiently during the recovery and concentration of metals like copper, molybdenum and gold, etc., then absolutely, that’s something that BC could contribute. Being supported by a strong market like copper allows more opportunity to try and extract those other minerals rather than exploring specifically for unusual critical minerals that have small and volatile markets.”

“We’ve been exploring for these much-needed minerals for years and we’re seeing new discoveries and potential all the time. BC is a centre of excellence for mineral exploration. We have the expertise, the knowledge and the rocks. We need to play a key role in finding and developing responsible sources for critical minerals.”

Kendra Johnston, President and CEO of AME

Some de-risking and R&D can be done by public geoscience. Carlson said the BC Geological Survey has excelled at this and can help by researching geological environments for critical minerals: “They can start pointing out to industry with their talks at trade shows and publications … ‘Hey, why don’t you look here? Why don’t you look there?’ … That’s always helpful.” Brady Clift, Manager, Minerals, Geoscience BC said Geoscience BC also provides R&D for industry.  Clift highlighted the Central Interior Copper-Gold Research projects (CICGR; looking for deposits under cover) and NI 43-101 project (making more data easier to find), which provide information to industry to support further exploration.

AME is working to bring knowledge to the public, from providing opportunities for experts to share work in critical minerals through webinars, podcasts and Roundup sessions, to advocating for industry. Carlson said, “[AME] is doing a heck of a job now; they are advocating. They’re a small organization with not a big budget, but … they’ve done a great job with their work lobbying in Victoria and they’re being listened to.”

The shift to a mainstream conversation about climate change and critical minerals gives the mining industry a unique opportunity. Turenne said, “[The critical minerals conversation] could be used to highlight the benefits that the mining industry can play to be a positive net contributor to the world’s environment. The mining industry has been perceived as a net detriment to ecology and this is a way to show that actually, no, geology and mining industry is critical to actually saving the planet.”

It’s an opportunity to change the conversation for the better. Hickin said, “If we can move to co-production of these other critical minerals within our traditional mines, then I think that we have a pretty solid opportunity to contribute to moving towards a low carbon future.”

By Nicole Barlow.