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The 2024 federal budget bolsters Canada’s ambitions to be a global supplier of critical minerals. Corporate tax incentives and shorter environmental review periods have been added to an earlier commitment of $4 billion in support of mining copper, lithium and other minerals essential to green technologies like e-vehicles, solar panels and wind turbines.

Amid a global scramble to secure critical minerals supply chains, Canada is highlighting its environmentally sustainable approach to extraction, anchored in “respect for Indigenous and treaty rights.”

What does all this look like on the ground?

Kudz Ze Kayah (KZK) mine in southeast Yukon is a test case: one of the first critical mineral mines to be approved since Canada released its Critical Minerals Strategy in 2022. After a highly contentious environmental review and multiple legal challenges, the Yukon and federal governments approved the open-pit copper/lead/zinc project last month. Kudz ze kayah means “caribou country” in the Kaska Dena language — an ironic name for a mine that is opposed by Kaska First Nations and could drive the Finlayson caribou herd to extinction.

As experts in environmental assessment and caribou, we are outraged by the mine’s approval but not shocked. Caribou are a kind of indicator species for the health of our regulatory systems: Indigenous rights to harvest caribou are affirmed in the Constitution and the most vulnerable herds are protected by species-at-risk legislation.

This should make it impossible to propose mines in critical caribou habitat. But it doesn’t. In studies we have conducted of every mine assessed by the B.C., Nunavut, and federal environmental assessment agencies since the mid-1990s, 71 of 73 projects with potential impacts to caribou were approved, even with overwhelming evidence of irreparable harm. For all the industry rhetoric about environmental “red tape” hindering development, in practice, environmental assessment in Canada is an approval machine, and it’s about to become even more “streamlined.”

Even with this dismal track record, the approval of KZK is alarming. If built, the mine will operate for only nine years, but will destroy the calving grounds of an already struggling herd and poison a sacred place Kaska regard as their “breadbasket.” KZK is strongly opposed by the two Kaska First Nations on whose unceded territory it is to be built; its approval violates their rights to decision-making about their lands and undermines their well-being, which is directly tied to the health of the land.

If ever there was a mine that our regulatory systems should reject, it’s this one. The federal government nearly did reject it, in fact, citing concerns about caribou and Kaska rights. But construction is expected to begin this spring.

We are told this is the unfortunate but necessary cost of a robust economy. It’s not.

Canada is positioning itself as a global destination for #CriticalMinerals extraction. Are we willing to destroy caribou herds and trample on Indigenous rights to do it? write Emilie Cameron, Rosemary Collard and Jessica Dempsey. #cdnpoli

Most Canadians want to honour Indigenous rights and protect endangered species; 80 per cent support limits to industrial activity for this purpose. They want jobs and economic security, but also want thriving ecosystems and dignified lives for everyone. We can have both.

To get there, though, we need to confront what is actually going on in Canada’s extractive sector. The mines we approve are built and operated almost entirely in the interests of investors and shareholders, they open and close at the whims of commodity markets, rarely meet local and Indigenous hiring targets, overstate and underdeliver their economic benefits, refuse to implement environmental protections, and regularly declare bankruptcy, leaving taxpayers with the cleanup costs. Our system doesn’t serve the public interest; it funnels collective wealth to the few and leaves us with the scraps (and the mess).

You don’t need to be a political radical to see the value of doing things differently. In Norway, the government collects a whopping 78 per cent corporate tax on oil and gas revenues and uses it to fund its world-class social safety net. In the Yukon, mining companies pay a paltry three per cent royalty rate on reported profits up to a maximum 12 per cent, but most mines pay nothing, either because they write off expenses, refuse to pay or are abandoned.

As global interest in critical minerals heats up, it’s time we had a serious conversation about how to harness Canada’s resource wealth. An extractive sector that actually protects precious lands and species, provides good and lasting jobs, honours Indigenous jurisdiction and rights, and uses the profits to fund things we all value — health care, education, affordable housing — is absolutely within our reach.

It’s time we start building an extractive economy that works for everyone.

Emilie Cameron, associate professor, Carleton University.

Rosemary Collard, associate professor, Simon Fraser University.

Jessica Dempsey, associate professor, University of British Columbia.

Keep reading

I wish the authors had chosen to frame statements made in the first half of this piece so as to not propagate myths, while highlighting curious juxtapositions, which would have foreshadowed the second half more effectively, IMO.

“…in support of mining copper, lithium and other minerals essential to green technologies like e-vehicles, solar panels and wind turbines.”

These days, “green” has, sadly, become synonymous with, simply, “much reduced GHG emissions”. Every other harm to the biosphere, incurred to achieve net-zero, is conveniently ignored or, as above, simply a cost of “being green”. Which is why our myopic policy focus on the climate crisis, alone, will result in the exacerbation of other tentacles of our ecological polycrisis (e.g. biodiversity loss AKA 6th mass extinction).

“Canada is highlighting its environmentally sustainable approach to extraction, anchored in “respect for Indigenous and treaty rights.””

This statement is egregious, in stating (without, minimally, air quotes) that Canada’s broad record on extraction, domestically or elsewhere, has even a scintilla of sustainability (OK, let’s agree that the Montreal Protocol is a scintilla). Not to mention that any respect for indigenous and treaty rights is newfound and had been forced upon recalcitrant, extraction-captured provincial gov’ts by our courts’ interpretations (hallelujah) of some of our country’s foundational documents (perhaps another scintilla).

“Constitution and the most vulnerable herds are protected by species-at-risk legislation.”

In a similar critique, how many species-at-risk across the country are receiving/ have received, in fact, protection? Specifically, protection that is implemented on a precautionary basis while a robust, self-sustaining population still exists, rather than rushing in (at best, and usually with expressions of alarm, protestations of proactivity, furrowed brow and many photo ops) when a few individuals remain. E.g. how many caribou herds, across the country, are at continued risk of extinction/ extirpation? When will Spotted Owls in BC receive protection that actually involves ceasing the destruction of their habitat? When will the Southern Resident Orca population receive protections that are actually sufficient to ensure its survival? (Not to mention, the survival of the salmon runs that are so incredibly vital to coastal and inland ecosystems).

“We are told this is the unfortunate but necessary cost of a robust economy.”

I wish the authors had repeated the adjective “green” here. As in, we must kill the ecosystem to save the ecosystem.

I’m of like mind, I think, with the authors; I just wish they’d been a little more selective in their prose.

While it's true that there is a tendency to ignore other damage and indeed really major environmental crises in the face of climate change, and it's also true that mining for the, let's call it decarbonized, economy is going to introduce new additional damage, it is NOT true that this means the decarbonized economy will do MORE damage on balance.

Even outside of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, it seems clear that the NET impact of the decarbonized economy on the environment will be less bad than that of the fossil fuel economy. Yes, the decarbonized economy involves additional mining for batteries, solar panel materials, steel and concrete and stuff for wind turbines, copper for more electrical wires and so forth. But it involves a reduction in mining for coal, oil and natural gas, as well as the materials involved in building the massive infrastructures around them of pipelines, trains, supertankers, trucks, gas stations. Let's not forget that mining for oil involves spills all over the place, tar sands and fracking, while mining for natural gas involves fracking, and of course mining for coal is just massively horrible. Fracking poisons the groundwater, lest we forget. The amount of stuff that has to be mined for EVs and renewable energy is substantial, but the amount of stuff that has to be mined for the fossil fuel economy is about two orders of magnitude greater. You need a lot more fuel that you burn, than you need of stuff you put in a battery you will use for a decade or more and then probably recycle. And the infrastructure required to pump electrons around is a lot more compact than the infrastructure required to pump diluted bitumen, crude, diesel, gasoline, gases, gases after you liquefy them and so on, while with electricity there's no need for refineries and LNG plants and such at all. On top of that, the decarbonized economy involves massively lower air pollution.

Does it fix everything? Absolutely not. Does it involve problems of its own, that we should try hard to mitigate? Yes. Should the particular mine discussed in this article be stopped? Almost certainly. Should mining as a whole, not just for things involved in renewable energy and batteries, be drastically reformed? Absolutely.

But the narrative that the electrified economy will kill the overall environment to save the climate is completely false, in fact the opposite of true--the electrified economy will help, some, on balance. And as far as I can tell, it's a narrative put about by the fossil fuel industry to try to confuse the issue so people who would normally be against them will be more reluctant to take action. Don't be fooled.

One point, though--when it comes to overall environmental damage, the electrified economy represents an INTENSITY reduction. Continued uncontrolled growth can certainly overwhelm any improvements, and even the current size of the economy will still represent overshoot relative to the earth's carrying capacity. My point is just that contrary to what some try to claim, the electrified version of our current awful economy is not worse than the fossil fueled version, but somewhat better.

Rufus, I didn't mention fossil fuels at all and, thus, didn't make any comparisons between, or share views about, which of a fossil economy or electrified economy is worse.

I'd suggest you go back and reread both the article and my response.

You will note that the authors actually advocated blocking a certain proposed mine in The Yukon.

And rather than playing (badly) "spot the fossil shill", I'd suggest you spend a little more time looking more broadly at our societies and the implications of business-as-usual economic policy -- whether fueled by fossils or windmills -- within a biosphere which holds limited resources for all the species that exist within it.

You might also do a bit of searching in google scholar, or elsewhere (there are endless examples of current books and research articles), to find articles such as:

https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlehtml/2022/ee/d2ee00802e
Material and energy requirements of transport electrification

"Of the four scenarios simulated, the one based on the principles of Degrowth is the only one in line with the GHG emission reductions required by global international targets, as well as being the scenario which puts less pressure on material endowments, but even in that case the current reserves of copper, cobalt, manganese and nickel, as well as the nickel resources, would be depleted by 2050. Further work should go deeper into the configuration of a Degrowth scenario in global transportation fully consistent with material endowments. "

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421518302726
Global metal flows in the renewable energy transition: Exploring the effects of substitutes, technological mix and development

This paper suggests that substitution and technological change will overcome any shortage of critical minerals.

“Interest in assessing the criticality of metals has increased among academia and policymakers in recent years, for a review of the literature see (Graedel and Reck, 2016, Jin et al., 2016). Criticality is dynamic over time, but Erdmann and Graedel (2011) and Jin et al. (2016) found that criticality assessments frequently overlook the role of recycling, innovation, substitution and time horizons.”

“Estimated demand for virgin metals was compared against current mining rates and reserves. The study shows that reserves are sufficient to support the total level of solar power, wind power and electric motors. Insufficient reserves and mining bottlenecks could constrain certain sub-technologies, their growth rates or make the metal more expensive, but substitutes that take the role as’back-stop’ technologies can be used instead. Increased lithium demand is identified as the main long-term obstacle and policy options to manage this are proposed.”

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0016328723000058
Critical mineral sustainable supply: Challenges and governance

""The supply of critical minerals and their products' environmental and social impacts are also often overlooked in assessing the transition of fossil energy economies."

"The supply chain of critical minerals will become more important in the global economy, and the geopolitics of global fossil energy will shift to critical minerals geopolitics. Critical minerals' multi-species and multi-source nature will make the issue more complex than energy geopolitics."

A couple of books, you say?

The Nutmeg's Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis
https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/N/bo125517349.html

The Value of a Whale: On the Illusions of Green Capitalism
https://manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9781526162632/
Even if you don't read the entire book, borrow it from the library just to read the introduction.

Escaping Overshoot: Economics for a Planet in Peril
https://newsociety.ca/books/e/escape-from-overshoot?sitedomain=ca
There are many books from respected economists that carry the same message.

And, just to be a little piquant:

Bright Green Lies
https://www.brightgreenlies.com/

From a review from "the choir" which speaks directly to the specific point of the importance given to what fuels industrial society, rather than critiquing industrial society, itself (https://www.resilience.org/stories/2021-05-10/bright-green-lies-review/):

"“The environmental movement used to be a very impassioned group of people who cared very deeply about the places we loved and the creatures we loved. What happened, though, in my lifetime, was that this movement which was so honourable and impassioned, it turned into something completely different. And now its about protecting a destructive way of life, while it destroys the creatures and the places we love. It’s all become, ‘how to we continue to fuel this destruction?’, as if the only problem was that we were using oil and gas.”"

I can't reference so many scholarly articles, but do take an interest in economic policy and technological advancement and disruption.

What I've gleaned in general is that Canadian mining is in dire need of reform, and I mean in international performance as well as domestic projects. Human rights violations are a terrible stain on some bad Canadian mining companies. Are we going to rip the metals under currently lax environmental assessments in Canada and ship them raw to Asia for CATL and BYD to build EV and grid scale batteries overseas, therein capturing most of the value chain? Or are we going to build a Canadian mining / battery / electrification model based on deeper evaluations of ecosystems, lifespan recycling, human rights and sound value capture economics, which in turn generate far more tax revenue to support our public social infrastructure than plain old rip 'n ship.

Battery technology is evolving very quickly, not just with higher energy densities but with substituting common, safer and more benign materials, mainly for the troublesome cobalt and nickel. Sodium and silicon are incoming and when contained in hybrid batteries with lithium, have dramatically improved all weather performance, efficiency, range and lifespan. Then you have recycling. Most battery components can be recycled over and over. When you regulate new batteries to contain 'X' amount of recycled metals, with the X morphing into X+ and X++ over time, it evolves exponentially to enable a largely closed loop industry to develop. More recycling = lower demand for raw materials = lower demand for more mines.

I'm with Mr. Polson in that the authors took a rather myopic view of one mine in one location, which still implied that mining for critical minerals today could damage more landscapes than historic mining, even with their qualifying riders. It's obvious that mining requires reform, especially with the levels of scrutiny and criticism it receives. At the same time, it strikes me as curious why the authors address these concerns with mining for materials critical to electrification and chose to omit mention of the fossil fuels it is meant to replace. Is that not the very reason why critical mineral mining is expanding in the first place? Coal, oil and gas once burned is gone forever but leaves behind waste products that last for centuries. The metals used in batteries, transmission cables and electrical components are perfectly recyclable, and smelting and melting them down in furnaces can be accomplished using renewable electricity.

Lastly, when discussing Indigenous rights it is understood that, though many Indigenous peoples are opposed to extraction, as the authors iterated, it is also a fact that many other First Nations want to participate or become full partners in some of it. Many others are actively considering building industrial-scale solar and wind farms on their land using products requiring the very minerals under discussion here. Climate initiatives and reconciliation through project partnerships with First Nations seem to be a very good fit.

We can hope that: reform takes hold in mining (by regulation, if necessary), especially in better quality professional independent environmental and habitat assessments; that batteries and expansion and the cleaning up of the nation's electrical grid assume very high levels of recycled material content; that the majority of the manufacturing processes for finished products are done here in Canada with significant multipliers and benefits circulating throughout the economy; and that Indigenous people are invited be part of the chain.

This is a good article that begins to recognize the consequences of advocating for the electrification of everything. Mining and a booming growth economy are the last thing this world needs.

Not just caribou, but biodiversity will be even further devastated, as will water quality and quantity - ground, riparian, lacustrine and marine - air quality, wildlife and their habitats, and ALL rural people who love and hold sacred their land, their ecosystems, and their economies.

First Nations, as humans generally are, would appear to be divided, some wanting to protect the land, some choosing the revenue and getting in on the action with pipelines, LNG facilities, logging old growth forests and mines, all of which contribute to climate change, and all of which further ravage what is left.

Eventually, when it is too late, it will dawn on the mostly, it would seem, urban advocates for electrifying everything, that the consequences have been too dire, even for them. Mining will not have saved the world, but will have laid waste to so much, simply compounding the ecological and existential crisis we have made.

As I said to the comment above, mining for the renewable economy involves much, much less damage than mining for the fossil fuel economy. The point is to replace the one with the other. We should still try to reduce that damage, but it will take an awful lot of battery mines before you're doing as much damage as the tar sands or the fracking or the coal mining.

@ Jillian Lynn Lawson. So what exactly are your solutions? Cut back on mining? Then by how much, and which ones? Stop all mining? If so, where do you start? Oil sands mines? Iron ore mines? Copper mines? Lithium mines?

You seem to be throwing everything under the bus without understanding the ramifications. Like, how many metals are used in that bus? In the computer you wrote your comments on? Your cooking utensils and stove and fridge and freezer and household wiring and the grocery store shelves? And where did all that metal and material come from?

Use less, displace polluting items with clean stuff, and recycle. On this we can both agree. But banning practically everything? Seriously?