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Some dig, others bury first phase of B.C.’s critical minerals strategy

Push for more mining to fight of climate change raises environmental questions
Details about the provincial government’s strategy for critical minerals are starting to emerge, but so are questions about its environmental ethics. (Illustration courtesy the Mining Association of B.C.)

The B.C. government released the first phase of its critical minerals strategy Monday to an industry waiting to pounce on a “generational” opportunity.

But while the mining community is eager to start digging, others expressed concern that economic forces may trample the need for oversight.

Governments around the world consider minerals such as copper and nickel critical in the production of electric vehicles, solar panels and wind turbines: technologies deemed necessary to reduce greenhouse gases.

Government announced the first phase of its strategy Jan. 22, coinciding with Premier David Eby’s appearance at a gathering of B.C.’s Association for Mineral Exploration.

It promises a new critical minerals project advancement office and the release of a critical minerals atlas to support exploration and land-use planning as B.C. attempts to accelerate project development.

“The world needs a stable, free, democratic, high-standard producer of the metals and minerals needed to battle climate change,” Eby said in a media release. “That gives B.C. a generational opportunity to seize, one where we can be prosperous and protect the planet for our kids at the same time.

“Resource workers like miners in our province are on the front lines of the fight against climate change. We’ll support them and their families, so they can support the whole province.”

John Steen, associate professor at the University of British Columbia and Director of the Bradshaw Research Initiative in Minerals and Mining, welcomed the news.

Steen, who has advised government on the strategy, said it recognizes the importance of critical minerals in the global economy and the role that B.C. can play. It also shows real effort by government to engage First Nations.

“I think on balance, it’s a very promising road map, but let’s just see what happens next in terms of actually putting it into action,” he said.

RELATED: ‘Generational’ opportunity for B.C. hangs in balance: mining industry leader

Steen added that he would like to see the strategy offer more form an environmental perspective.

“There is no such thing as mining with no environmental impact,” Steen said. “The key question is, how do we minimize the environmental impacts?”

Minimizing use of fossil fuels in extraction and the processing of waste are two key areas, he said.

BC Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau said she hopes the province takes its role as a regulator seriously. Minerals are public goods and it is the role of government to ensure that the benefits fall to the public, she said.

“I’m concerned what we are seeing from the provincial government is a level of enthusiasm about a mining boom without having done the work to ensure that we are not repeating the same mistakes of the past,” she said.

Abandoned mines rank among the worst sources of pollution in B.C. and mining has caused some of the worst environmental disasters in B.C.’s history, Furstenau said, pointing to the Mount Polley Mine disaster of 2014.

BC United’s Tom Shypitka, meanwhile, called the strategy “dead on arrival” without real carbon tax relief in place.

“After seven years under the NDP, B.C.’s mining sector continues to suffer due to our province’s complete lack of tax and regulatory competitiveness, ongoing goalpost shifts, and permit paralysis, resulting in capital fleeing the province,” Shypitka said in a release.

Nikki Skuce, director at the Northern Confluence Initiative, a conservation group based in northwestern British Columbia, wants more information.

Skuce stressed the importance of having the consent of First Nations in future mining projects in pointing to the on-going reforms of B.C.’s mining legislation following a court ruling that has given government 15 months time.

She also pointed to the importance of recycling and re-using materials.

“We need to mine resources, but we need to do so more responsibly,” she said in pointing to the need of coordinating the critical minerals strategy with other goals. “What we really need to do is look at those (critical minerals) within the bio-diversity crisis, within the climate action plan and the circular economy.”

“We can’t just mine our way out of the climate crisis and we can’t just replace one destructive extraction industry — fossil fuels — with another (mining),” she said.

Skuce said government has recognized some of these aspects, but she is not sure it has has fully connected the dots.

“There is a definitely a tension between bio-diversity commitments and critical minerals,” she said.

Steen acknowledged the importance of recycling, but also warned against high expectations, pointing to a 2019 World Bank report that estimates humanity will need as much copper in the next 25 years as it has produced during the past 5,000.

“You can’t get there just with recycling,” Steen said. “So we are going to need recycling and new minerals.”

Ultimately, it is a question of trade-offs.

“It’s a trade-off in the sense, that if we had no mining at all, we don’t have any of the metals that we need for solar panels, for wind farms, for electric vehicles,” he said. “We have to recognize that there is going to be some environmental impact, but that environmental impact has to be acceptable to the public and to First Nations.”

When asked about scaling back the consumption of goods, Steen acknowledged it as a possibility, but questioned its appeal.

“It’s theoretically possible, but I would like to see the people, who are putting up their hand saying, ‘yes, we will accept a lower standard of living.’”

The full strategy is expected to come out in the next few months


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Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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