Drive two hours north of Ottawa, don a bright orange helmet and jacket, descend into a pit and you find yourself on the front lines of the fight to be part of the new green economy.
A mining project may not be what comes to mind when you think of the transition to a low-emissions economy. But built into electric vehicles, solar panels and hydrogen storage, metals and minerals come from mines like Lac-des-Îles, Quebec.
The graphite mine, owned by the Northern Graphite Company, is just one of many projects to extract what is now officially called “critical minerals” — substances of significant strategic and economic importance for the future of national economies.
Lac-des-Îles is the only major graphite mining project in North America, representing Canada’s contribution to an industry dominated by China.
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Industry experts and proponents say Canada has the potential to be a major player in critical minerals, but needs to change the scope and scale of investment and regulation to get there .
For Northern Graphite, in the short term, that means money. Hugues Jacquemin, CEO of Northern Graphite, told CBC The House during a visit to the Quebec plant that the company is trying to open a mine in Bissett Creek, Ontario, to produce graphite that could go into the batteries of electric vehicles.
But they need to raise $150 million to start production.
“No investor is willing to take on 100% of the risk. We need someone to step in alongside the investor and bear some of the risk, as there is currently no demand for battery materials in Canada or the United States,” Jacquemin said. said.
“So we need something to help us kick-start the whole supply chain so that we can be there three or four years from now when the market buys materials.”
The company says it expects to seek significant financial support from the federal government, but nothing has been confirmed so far.
For its part, the federal government says it is committed to helping build a vital minerals industry in Canada and recently released its official strategy do this.
“We need to make sure we have access to these essential minerals so that we can successfully navigate the energy transition and fight climate change,” Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said in an interview with The House.
Wilkinson told host Catherine Cullen that while the government is willing to work with business, it cannot be the sole source of funding.
“The source of all the capital is not from the government. The government can actually do things to help start these [projects]. But it is obvious that companies must be able [raise] private capital,” he said.
Wilkinson highlighted a number of measures the government has put in place to help Canadian companies develop critical mining projects, including the Canada Growth Fund, new tax credits for green investments and government infrastructure funding to help facilitate the projects.
Project timelines are a concern
The Canadian government is far from alone in taking an interest in the mining of critical minerals in this country. The US Department of Defense has expressed interest in projects here – and a willingness to invest. Jacquemin said Northern Graphite also plans to solicit US investment.
Critics — including Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre — have said it simply takes too long to develop a mining project in Canada. Northern Graphite, for example, has owned Bissett Creek since 2012, and the mine is not yet operational.
Wilkinson said the average mining project typically takes around 12 to 15 years, but “that’s still too long.” He said the government was aiming for something more like five or six years.
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Ian London, executive director of the Canadian Critical Minerals and Materials Alliance, told Cullen that Canada has the “pieces of the puzzle” to unlock Canada’s critical mineral potential, but more needs to be done.
“Potential customers … want operating facilities, not aspirations,” he said.
Environmental impact, Indigenous participation
Perhaps the most significant challenges for the mining industry stem from concerns about environmental impacts and the role of Indigenous communities.
On the environmental front, advocacy groups like Environmental Defense worry that mining projects carry risks of waste and environmental damage.
“We have to recognize that more mining probably needs to happen, but it needs to be managed responsibly, and we cannot use the rush to extract more minerals for the transition to be an excuse to water down environmental standards” , said Nate Wallace. , a program manager with the group.
Wallace noted that with some projects, there’s a risk that the benefit of unlocking reduced emissions from innovations like electric vehicles won’t be worth the cost of the project’s greenhouse gas production. He cited the controversial Ring of Fire proposals in Ontario as an example.
“There are also significant environmental concerns about this project because it’s covered in peatlands, and it’s basically the equivalent of Canada’s Amazon rainforest, in terms of a huge carbon sink,” said he declared.
London said he agreed a balance had to be struck between environmental impacts and project development. He said dialogue should continue on controversial projects, but Canada’s attention should be more immediate.
“Our priority should be on projects that are closer to — not ready to go — but actually going into production,” he said.
Wilkinson said the government is “very focused” on making sure the environmental cost of mining is minimized.
“There is no mining project that has no impact,” he said. “But there are certainly projects that can be done in a way where the impacts are modest and there is a plan to address the aftermath of the mine.”
The Ring of Fire proposals are also a key test of how governments and corporations interact with Indigenous communities. Neskantaga First Nation said it was not meaningfully consulted on the proposals and protested them.
WATCH | Leaders of the Neskantaga First Nation express their opposition to mining development:
Mark Podlasly, an executive of the First Nations Major Projects Coalitionrecognized that indigenous peoples have been wronged in the past in relation to development.
“Many First Nations are concerned that this new rush for critical minerals, for the net zero transition, is a repeat of what has happened in the past,” he told Cullen.
“The way it should work is that Indigenous peoples need to be included in the environmental and economic decisions of projects from the start.”
The mining sector faces a reputational challenge
Kirsty Liddicoat, COO of Northern Graphite, said the mining industry also faces challenges when it comes to building its own reputation and workforce. In addition to national concerns, Canadian businesses are often criticized for their actions abroad.
“I think mining as an industry is misunderstood and doesn’t necessarily have the best reputation. So that brings us to a number of challenges around social license and talent,” she said.
“We need to attract the smartest people to the biggest issues we have as a world, to help us make that change.”
London said the mining industry has taken steps to strengthen corporate accountability, but there will always be a trade-off in an extractive industry.
“A colleague of mine said that when it comes to green technologies, among all that green there will always be a bit of black,” he said.
“It’s an extractive industry, there will be a negative impact. But overall it’s extremely positive.”