North to the critical mineral future
Alaska and Canada's North are rich in clean energy minerals Mining Explorers 2022 - January 19, 2023
Last updated 1/20/2023 at 7:31am
The increasing number of electric vehicles charged with renewable energy, connected to 5G networks, and boasting the computing power of 200 laptops to autonomously traverse global highways is creating a meteoric rise in demand for the minerals and metals critical to clean energy and high-tech.
Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, the foremost authority on lithium battery supply chains, estimates that more than 300 new mines will need to come online by 2035 – just to produce the cobalt, graphite, lithium, and nickel that go into EV batteries.
This does not account for the enormous quantities of copper needed to wire a world that has more energy delivered by powerline and less by pipeline, or rare earths that make EVs and wind power generation more efficient, or the tellurium in American made solar panels, gallium that goes into 5G networks, germanium for long-distance fiber optics, and the list goes on.
From zinc and germanium recovered at the Red Dog Mine in Alaska, to copper from the Red Chris Mine in British Columbia's Golden Triangle, and rare earth elements being shipped from the Nechalacho Mine in Northwest Territories, North America's northern mining jurisdictions are already feeding critical minerals and metals into the supply chains.
Alaska, Northern BC, and Northwest Territories are also positioned to deliver bismuth, cobalt, graphite, and tungsten from projects that are in the advanced stages of exploration or early development. These northern mining jurisdictions are also highly prospective for virtually every other mineral and metal deemed critical to Canada and the United States.
Given the global competition for the enormous volumes of mined materials needed to build the envisioned clean energy future, coupled with rising geopolitical considerations surrounding Russia's invasion of Ukraine and America's tenuous relationship with China, Ottawa and Washington, DC, are investing hundreds of billions of dollars to establish secure and reliable critical mineral supply chains in North America.
Alaska, Northern BC, and NWT are positioning themselves to leverage their critical minerals abundance to be important links at the front end of these emerging supply chains.
Alaska's time is now
With the urgency to develop domestic supplies of critical minerals and metals that are abundant in Alaska on the rise, state and federal academic, government, and industry leaders convened in August on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus for the "Alaska's Minerals – A Strategic National Imperative" summit.
During her opening address, UAF President Pat Pitney compared the need to develop Alaska's rich critical mineral resources to previous national imperatives such as the Alaska Highway, built to protect America's interest in the Pacific theater during World War II, or the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, built to stave off oil shortages during the 1970s energy crisis.
"The time is now," she said, setting the tone for the two-day summit.
While America's reliance on mineral imports has long been on the radar of Washington, D.C. policymakers, the rapid transition to low-carbon energy and the heating up of geopolitical tensions related to the Ukraine War and tensions between China and Taiwan have elevated the criticality of securing reliable sources of the mined commodities that go into manufacturing electric vehicles, solar panels, military equipment, and other goods vital to economic and national security.
Over the past five decades, the U.S. has become increasingly reliant on China and other nations for its supply of minerals and metals. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, America is more than 50% import reliant on 47 minerals, including 100% for 17 of them.
This heavy reliance on imports, primarily from China, comes at a time when global governments and automakers are racing to ensure they have the materials to build hundreds of millions of EVs in the coming years.
Critical minerals frontier
How richly endowed in critical minerals is Alaska?
From zinc and germanium already being produced at the Red Dog Mine in Northwest Alaska to cobalt-enriched copper deposits in the Ambler Mining District, the largest graphite deposit in the U.S. found on the Seward Peninsula, rare earths at the Bokan Mountain project on the Southeast Alaska Panhandle, and thousands of deposits and prospects found between, America's 49th State hosts 49 of the 50 minerals and metals deemed critical to the U.S.
Interestingly, aluminum is the only commodity on the U.S. critical minerals list that has not been found in any appreciable quantities in Alaska.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski says that many of her colleagues in Washington, D.C., believe that the talk of Alaska's enormous critical minerals potential is hyperbole.
"Because Alaska is always the biggest, we always have more, we always have the tallest or the deepest, the widest or the bluest, and the fact of the matter is that we do," she said during the opening day of the Alaska's Minerals summit.
Federal geologists, however, agree with the senator's superlatives when it comes to Alaska's mineral endowment, which is why they recently announced a $6.75 million investment into an expanded critical minerals exploration program there.
"All the way back to the days of the Gold Rush, Alaska has been famous for its mineral wealth. These new projects represent the next steps in understanding the mineral potential for commodities that are critical to our national economy and defense," said U.S. Geological Survey Director David Applegate.
The USGS director told delegates gathered for the Alaska's Minerals summit that the new programs being carried out under the USGS Earth Mapping Resources Initiative, or Earth MRI, will provide information vital to narrowing the search for critical minerals across the vast, mineral-rich, and underexplored landscape that is Alaska.
"The Last Frontier remains a frontier for critical mineral resource development," he said.
The new Earth MRI programs are investigating three Alaska frontier regions – Kuskokwim River, Seward Peninsula, and Yukon-Tanana Upland – known to host intriguing quantities of antimony, bismuth, graphite, platinum group metals, rare earth elements, tin, tungsten, and other critical minerals.
More information on the USGS Alaska critical minerals program can be read at Earth MRI for Alaska critical minerals in the August 26, 2022 edition of North of 60 Mining News.
BC's critical minerals role
Northern BC is enormously enriched with critical minerals, especially the copper needed to wire an electric-centric world and the nickel vital to the lithium-ion batteries for EVs and clean energy storage.
This rich endowment of minerals positions BC and its First People to benefit from the rocketing demand for minerals to build a low-carbon future, according to the "Explore our Economy" report published a year ago by the Association for Mineral Exploration BC and iTOTEM Analytics.
"With demand for the minerals and metals we discover soaring to meet the needs of a low-carbon economy, we understand the acute importance of the critical role we play in achieving net-zero goals," said AME President and CEO Kendra Johnston.
During the opening day of AME's Roundup 2022, BC Minister of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation Bruce Ralston announced that mineral exploration expenditures in BC are near all-time highs, which is good for the province, its people, and the clean energy future.
"Mineral exploration and mine development are fundamental and essential industries in BC and will continue to play a critical role in the growth of our province and the transition to a low-carbon economy," Ralston said during the AME Roundup 2022 opening ceremonies.
According to the Explore our Economy report, roughly 21% of the mineral exploration investments in BC during 2021 went to First Nations-affiliated vendors.
"This report demonstrates how vital Indigenous-affiliated business and collaborative partnerships are to mineral exploration, and how these relationships can advance reconciliation and economic advancement for Indigenous communities," said Johnston.
With the growing demand for the minerals and metals needed for a low-carbon economy, it is expected that new records for mineral exploration and the consequential investments with First Nations vendors will continue to grow in the coming years.
"Huge volumes of metals including copper, gold and nickel, together with critical minerals, are required for electric vehicles, renewable energy generation, energy storage and transmission, medical technology and more," AME and iTOTEM inked in a summary of the Explore our Economy report. "These metals occur naturally in BC where we are already exploring for these critical minerals using the highest environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards."
From communities in the remotest corners of the province to the more than 1,100 mineral exploration companies headquartered in the bustling city of Vancouver, the enormous demand for minerals to build a clean energy future is providing an enormous boost for the BC economy.
"Explore our Economy demonstrates how the mineral exploration industry is essential to thousands of businesses and people in all corners of the province, helping to ensure a strong and vibrant provincial economy for generations to come," said Johnston.
BC copper and nickel
While Northern BC is enriched in many of the metals needed for EVs, renewable energy, and new technologies, this mineral-rich region stands to benefit most from the nearly unfathomable volumes of copper that are going to be needed in the coming decades.
The World Bank estimates that roughly 1.1 trillion pounds of copper will be needed for the EVs, charging stations, transmission, and generations of low-carbon electricity to replace the fossil fuel-based energy that powered the 20th century.
Copper is so vital to low-carbon energy and transportation that Goldman Sachs has declared this conductor metal to be the new oil.
In September, Goldman Sachs said the price for a pound of copper needs to be at least US$6.50 to incentivize the development of enough mines to wire the low-carbon electric future.
This could be a boon for Northern BC, a region with multiple world-class deposits of the red metal.
Five of the largest and most advanced copper-gold projects in Northern BC – Galore Creek, KSM, Red Chris, Schaft Creek, and Tatogga – host nearly 100 billion lb of copper in the inferred and indicated resource categories.
Numerous other earlier staged copper projects are being explored across Northern BC.
While BC's Golden Triangle region is famed for its copper and gold, this area hosts many other metals critical to the energy transition, including nickel and cobalt at Giga Metals Corp.'s Turnagain project.
Aside from the massive demand for both battery metals, one of the intriguing aspects of Turnagain is recent studies that indicate that the tailings of a future mine there would capture and sequester nearly as much CO2 as the operation would emit, which could make the nickel and cobalt produced attractive to automakers seeking to lower the carbon footprint of the batteries going into their EVs.
The advantages have drawn the interest of Mitsubishi Corp., which has agreed to pay Giga roughly US$6.2 million (C$8 million) to acquire a 15% interest in Hard Creek.
"We are very pleased to welcome Mitsubishi Corporation, a global trading and investment company, as a strategic partner for the development of Turnagain project," said Giga Metals President Martin Vydra.
A new era for NWT
The mining of gold, zinc, and diamonds has provided a foundation for Northwest Territories' economy for more than a century. Now, the northern Canada territory is looking to build upon this legacy by feeding critical minerals and metals into North American supply chains.
"From our beginnings in base metals like zinc, lead, and gold, we progressed to becoming the birthplace of ethically sourced diamonds in the 1990s," Northwest Territories Minister of Industry, Tourism and Investment Caroline Wawzonek said. "The breadth of our mineral potential is expanding even further, thanks to the presence of green economy metals like rare earth minerals, lithium, nickel, and cobalt needed to meet the demand of clean technologies along with many other resources recognized as critical or strategic minerals and metals."
NWT hosts known deposits and occurrences with 23 of 31 minerals that have been deemed critical by the Canadian government, and this northern territory that is about twice the size of Texas is as underexplored as it is vast.
Above and beyond being enriched with rare earths and other critical minerals often imported from places like China, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Russia, the permitting system in NWT ensures that the mined commodities produced in the territory meet high environmental, social, governance, and indigenous participation standards.
"We are world leaders in these measures, well known for our environmental oversight, Indigenous representation in regulatory processes, and the recognition of traditional knowledge," Wawzonek said. "In fact, the NWT model; the ESG-I, with its unique approach to collaborative and consensus-based legislative development, resource royalty sharing, and socio-economic and benefit agreements, is anchored by the critical leadership of NWT Indigenous Governments in resource exploration and development in Canada."
The newly developed Nechalacho rare earths mine is an operating example of the advantages NWT has to offer, both in terms of rich critical minerals potential and the strength of the ESG-I model in the territory.
In addition to being the first rare earths mine in all of Canada, Nechalacho boasts environmental advantages and a relationship with local indigenous companies that bolster the ESG-I score of this producer of a group of elements critical to EVs, wind turbines, and a broad array of other modern industrial and consumer products.
Australia-based Vital Metals Ltd., which operates Nechalacho Mine through its Canadian subsidiary Cheetah Resources Corp., is working hard to ensure that as many benefits as possible from mining rare earths at Nechalacho are realized by NWT businesses and people.
This includes Canada First People making up roughly 70% of the workforce at Nechalacho.
The ability to achieve such a high First Nation hire rate has a lot to do with contracting Det'on Cho Nahanni Construction Ltd., a Northwest Territories-based First Nations company, to carry out the mining and earthworks at Nechalacho.
"The Yellowknives Dene First Nation is pleased to be the first Indigenous group in Canada to be responsible for mineral extraction on their traditional territory," said Yellowknives Dene First Nations Chief Ernest Betsina. "When indigenous people conduct the mining operations, they are better able to control the process, resulting in better safeguarding of the environment."
NWT seeks federal funds
Like the rest of Canada's North and Alaska, NWT is a vast and remote land with limited transportation and energy infrastructure. This often makes the economics of mining even high-grade deposits, especially those that produce a concentrate that must be shipped elsewhere for processing, out of reach.
The territory, which has been working to bridge this gap between its rich mineral resources and the markets that need them, hopes the federal government's C$3.8 billion (US$3 billion) budget to support Canada's critical minerals strategy includes funds to continue this effort.
The recently completed 97-kilometer (60 miles) Tlicho Highway to the community of Whati is an example of recent efforts to extend infrastructure closer to the territory's critical mineral potential.
Funded by a partnership between the federal, territorial, and Tlicho First Nations governments, this recently completed project extends road access to within 50 kilometers (30 miles) of Fortune Minerals Ltd.'s NICO cobalt-gold-bismuth-copper project, which will need road access to deliver concentrates to market.
Located about 150 kilometers (95 miles) north of northern NWT rail system terminus at Hay River, NICO is a near-development stage project that includes an intriguing mix of critical and precious metals that makes it an intriguing prospect.
NWT hopes that Ottawa will support further infrastructure development to critical minerals-enriched areas of the territory.
"To transition into the next chapter of our storied mining history with our rich critical mineral potential, we need strong partners at the federal level and continue to make the case for significant infrastructure investment. By doing this, we will be able to capitalize on our true economic potential," said Northwest Territories Premier Caroline Cochrane.
The C$3.8 billion (US$3 billion) federal budget to support the development of critical minerals across Canada includes C$1.5 billion (US$1.2 billion) specifically designated for infrastructure investments to unlock new mineral projects in critical regions.
"The NWT is a vibrant jurisdiction with opportunities in abundance. We are looking for new partnerships across a variety of ventures and areas of development," said Wawzonek. "We continue to build on our best practices and our strengths, and we are looking to welcome like-minded investors and partners. We are ready to raise our bar once again and are likely one of the best positioned jurisdictions to do that at this moment in time."