The second day of the Association for Mineral Exploration’s (AME) Remote Roundup 2021 opened with Stephen Piercey, professor of economic geology in the Department of Earth Sciences at Memorial University of Newfoundland, talking about Canada’s role in the green economy.
Piercey began by saying his talk originated from a conversation with his wife, who was tired of hearing him complain about the “many people who want climate change mitigation but are also against mining.”
“My interest in this talk has stemmed from trying to find some common ground with people inside as well as outside our discipline,” he said. “So, I’m going to bring the concept of the ‘local food’ movement to the conversation with the endpoint being the role that ‘local metals’ and Canada could bring to the green economy.”
Piercey started by quoting from the International Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body tasked with assessing the science related to climate change, which has said that if the world doesn’t make significant changes by 2040 to keep global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, then it will face a runaway greenhouse effect, with significant consequences for the planet.
He said that this means we will need new energy delivery and transportation infrastructure to replace our current systems, which generate very large carbon footprints. He noted, for example, that the use of computers and the internet are substantial energy sinks that generate significant carbon emissions and consume a considerable and diverse range of metals.
“Just sending an email or a text message is equivalent to generating four grams of carbon just based on their energy use alone,” he said. “So, we will have to makes some big changes.”
These changes will be based on finding alternative ways to generate power outside the consumption of fossil fuels, which is the leading cause of climate change. New power sources will need to be found for heating and cooling our homes, offices, factories, and public buildings and for transportation infrastructure.
The shift towards cleaner energy generation and transportation will require new technologies that harness renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar, and new battery technologies to store this energy.
“These new technologies will use traditional metals that we would mine normally, including iron, copper, nickel, and zinc, and for which there are significant resources around the world,” Piercey said. “For example, electric vehicles use around three to four times more copper than vehicles with combustion engines.”
Copper supply, he noted, was well-established globally with abundant resources in Chile, Peru, Australia, and the U.S., adding that Canada has good trading relationships with these countries.
However, many new technologies will be reliant on materials that are much more dependent on strategic metals such as cobalt, lithium, and rare earth elements (REEs) for which there isn’t an abundant supply globally, and will be sourced from countries where current relations are not as good, he said.
Piercey believes there need to be more sources of supply for lithium. Most of the current lithium comes from salares, natural salt flats found in deserts, with supplies from Chile, Peru, and Australia accounting for more than 90% of the world’s total. Therefore, should lithium demand increase, there may be limited supply to meet it, he said.
Similarly, around 60% of the global supply of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), with limited amounts from Australia, Russia, Cuba, and Canada.
“Not only are the politics of the DRC highly uncertain, but there are also significant social-political issues, particularly around child labour, that are driving the need for ethically sourced cobalt and are forcing us to look for alternative sources,” Piercey said.
The current supply of REEs, meanwhile, is dominated by China, which supplies about 90% of the world’s total. Relations with China, he noted, are very strained at the moment, given the 2018 arrest in Canada of Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou.
Given the uncertainty around the global supply of strategically important metals, Piercey believes that Canada can play a significant role in filling the gap in the global supply chain for copper, lithium, cobalt, and REEs.
Canada is a significant producer of copper sourced from porphyry deposits in B.C. and volcanogenic massive sulphide and magmatic deposits in Quebec, Ontario, and Newfoundland and Labrador, with substantial upside opportunities for further exploration, he said.
Although there is significant exploration potential for cobalt in places like Cobalt, Ontario, Blackbird in Idaho, Voisey’s Bay in Newfoundland and Labrador, and from iron oxide-copper-gold orebodies in the Northwest Territories, the supply of cobalt in North America is currently limited, Piercey said.
Mining companies like First Cobalt (TSXV: FCC; US-OTC: FTSSF) are looking to capitalise on the increasing demand for cobalt with the construction of the first cobalt refinery in North America.
For REEs, Piercey noted that the Saskatchewan Research Council has been developing methodologies for extracting REE oxides.
“In general, Canada has a good supply of ferrous and non-ferrous metals needed for the green economy, and there are significant benefits for Canada to be a global supplier of these metals,” he said.
In 2017 mining in Canada generated $44 billion from the production of 60 minerals and metals extracted from 200 mines and 7,000 sand and gravel pits and stone quarries, with the minerals sector, directly and indirectly, accounting for 426,000 jobs.