Disruption is Normal: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Exploration Business

This week signals the beginning of Phase Two in British Columbia: a careful restart of certain businesses, organizations, and institutions after two long months of restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It is a tentative step forward on the road “back to normal” in a year that has been far from normal.

Since mid-March 2020, the global pandemic caused by a novel coronavirus has kept AME members out of the office, taken fieldwork and business travel off the table, and made face-to-face networking a distant memory. It is a disruption unlike anything we have seen before but many in our industry are taking it in stride. Can you remember the last ‘normal’ year we had?

According to the latest British Columbia Mineral and Coal Exploration Survey released in March, 2019 was “relatively steady”. Mineral and coal exploration expenditure in BC was down less than a percentage point from 2018, leveling off after two consecutive years of exploration growth as we recovered from the depths of 2016.

External disruptions are part of the mineral exploration game and although we may not love it, we ride the boom and bust cycles bought on every few years by fluctuations in commodity prices, market uncertainty, and the whims of investors. Mineral exploration is, by nature, a cyclical business that relies heavily on investment.

The COVID-19 Impact on Economics

Setting aside the serious physical and mental health impacts of the pandemic itself, and the isolation to stop the spread, there are sparks of opportunity in these unprecedented times. In a business where disruption is normal, mineral exploration still has one major upside we can rely on: the world needs metals and minerals, and the mining sector needs a pipeline of exploration and development projects to turn into future mines. Mineral exploration isn’t going anywhere.

Disruption drives innovation, and with no end in sight to the disruption associated with COVID-19, the mineral exploration business is switching gears. On the technical side, explorers are diving into data in search of new discoveries, and investor relations activity is moving online, with conferences, meetings, and networking events taking place on various communication platforms.

“There are some advantages of all the [technology] we’ve been able to use,” said portfolio manager Robert Cohen, 1832 Asset Management, during a virtual panel discussion hosted by Vrify on May 14, “It’s more instantaneous. I don’t have to wait for a Vancouver exploration company to come to Toronto… we can just do this online and it’s easier than we ever thought. Hopefully if things ever get back to normal, we’ll have the best of both worlds.”

Together with Maria Smirnova from Sprott Asset Management and host, Stephen de Jong, CEO of Vrify, the panel explored some of the financial drivers and potential impacts of the pandemic for mineral explorers, particularly the juniors.

On a global scale, there is still uncertainty about the virus itself and the financial impact. For now, this uncertainty is sustaining the bull run on gold that has been building for several years, and this is attracting the elusive generalist investors we have been waiting for. The big unknown is if this run will be sustained when the global economy restarts.

“Real damage being done to countries and economies around the world,” said Smirnova. Gold is a safe haven for investors, she said, and for now the weak economy means gold is doing well, but prolonged volatility in global markets can easily make gold go up or down.

With a recent uptick in mergers and acquisitions, both Smirnova and Cohen agree that sticking with exploration is the answer, and that despite uncertainty bought on by the pandemic, the best exploration projects always win.

“…if you have prospects of properties that you can explore, brownfields or greenfields, go for it,” said Smirnova, “That is the biggest bang for your buck and we need that right now. We have a literal shortage of development projects and discoveries.”

Impact on Communities

On the flipside, the logistics of carrying out this vital exploration in BC this summer are complex. Although guidance for workers in small industrial camps is now available, the challenges of traveling to remote sites are mounting.

For example, in the northwest of the province, where half of the exploration spending took place in 2019, local First Nations have asked non-essential visitors, such as tourists, hunters and fishers, to stay away to prevent COVID-19 reaching vulnerable populations and isolated communities.

In a communication issued by the Tahltan Central Government on 11 May, Tahltan Leadership said: “Keeping our Elders, those with compromised immune systems and all our Nation members safe remains our top priority. That is why Tahltan Leadership will keep in place the strict preventive measures that have kept COVID-19 outside of our Territory and our people safe.”

Mine sites and exploration projects remain in operation in the territory, but the vital task of consultation may be difficult this year. This may be the case across the province as mineral explorers alter their plans to fit the new reality and work environment.  The mineral exploration community is committed to preventing and reducing health, safety and environmental risks to workers and local communities as we pursue the ultimate health, safety, and environmental goal of zero harm.

There is useful information on the BC Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Indigenous consultation bulletin outlining interim guidelines for those responsible for consulting with Indigenous communities and organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Keep up-to-date with all COVID-19 information related to mineral exploration via amebc.ca/covid-19.

By Kylie Williams.