Part 5: Lithium mining on the Prairies – the possibilities of a bust

There’s doubt that there will be a lithium boom. Some say the need for lithium could decline if new technology is developed.

The Wilderness committee weighs in with environmental concerns

While the potential lithium mining boom may be good news to those in and adjacent to the mining industry, not everyone is pleased with all aspects of it. 

Eric Reder, wilderness and water campaigner for the Wilderness Committee, an environmental protection organization, says mining should not happen in provincial parks or other designated protected zones, especially during the ongoing climate and biodiversity crises

“Parks are supposed to be for parks,” Reder said during a recent interview with The Flatlander. “They’re supposed to be for nature and the preservation of biodiversity. We have to handle the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis at the same time. They are intertwined. So, we can’t say we’re going to sacrifice this chunk of nature so we can get electric batteries so we can fight the climate crisis. That is not a viable solution anywhere on the planet, and any government that puts that forward as a message is failing us.”

Unlike logging, a mobile operation that can be moved if a part of the forest is protected, mining can only occur at the spot where the mineral is found. Therefore, Reder said, governments need to handle mineral extraction differently and may need to say no to exploration companies. 

He cited the example of the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska, in the United States. One of the largest copper deposits ever discovered in the world sits below Bristol Bay. Still, the proposed mine has not gone forward because of the importance of the salmon run that goes through the bay and into its tributaries. 

Reder said he would be in favour of nationalizing all minerals, especially ones that have been officially deemed “critical,” so everyone can benefit from them, and not just certain companies because ultimately, it is the public – along with the wildlife – that is burdened with the destructive impacts of mining.

“If these minerals are so critical,” Reder said, “why are we paying wildcat and cowboy companies to come in and bulldoze and be like: ‘I claimed this. These are mine, and I get to make a billion dollars off this.’ If the minerals are critical and needed, then we nationalize all of the mining claims inside a provincial park. That’s it. If it’s critical, then the public has to handle it.”

If exploration and mining do get the green light to go forward in the province, Reder said, he would like to see a “three-to-one” trade for allowing companies to develop the land. For example, if a company is permitted to create 200 hectares for mining within Nopiming Provincial Park, 600 hectares should be added to the park in a different region. 

However, in Reder’s opinion, the current Progressive Conservative government in Manitoba likely wouldn’t do something like that because they don’t seem interested in protecting more of Manitoba’s wild areas.

Reder has documented development in natural areas for decades, and he said companies operating in Nopiming recently are using problematic exploration techniques. 

For example, Reder said he saw machinery near Cat Lake clearing a trail for drilling in November 2021, which shouldn’t have been allowed since the ground is not frozen then, meaning heavy machinery can cause extensive damage. 

Reder recounted that when he returned to that exact spot this July, he found the core samples drilled in November hadn’t been taken from the site yet. 

“There was no rush for them to bulldoze the forest in November,” he said. “They didn’t even process the ore.”

A mining road inside Nopiming Provincial Park. PHOTO BY THE WILDERNESS COMMITEE.
A mining road inside Nopiming Provincial Park. PHOTO BY THE WILDERNESS COMMITEE.

Reder wants all new mineral mining banned in provincial parks. He added that companies with claims should be obligated to use them within 10 years or lose them. When these companies apply to do their preliminary exploration work, they should be vetted to ensure they know what they’re doing and that the work won’t have a substantial ecological impact.

Along with members of the Sagkeeng First Nation, Reder hosts a one-day river paddle up the Bird River every year on World Rivers Day, the fourth Sunday of September. This year, the paddle was on Sept. 24. It’s meant to draw attention to the importance of waterways in the province. 

Currently, there is a proposal to have Bird River added to Nopiming Provincial Park.

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CEO Harry Barr said that New Age Metals always follows the environmental guidelines put in place when it comes to their exploration work. 

“We adhere to the strictest rules when it comes to bringing in equipment and drill rigs, and we work with companies that have the same record as we do,” the CEO said.

Right now, the company is finalizing a significant report about the steps they take to mitigate the environmental and social aspects of mining, down to how much fuel a drill rig would use and how much pollution it would put back into the air.

At this point, Barr noted, any mines related to New Age Metals’ exploration would likely be underground mines. However, if enough lithium is found near the surface, the mines may start as open-pit and progress underground. 

Dr. Tania Martins with the Manitoba Geological Survey said mining base metals, like gold and copper, can be associated with generating acidic water, which is an environmental concern. However, lithium doesn’t pose that threat to waterways. 

“In the case of these types of rocks, they’re very beneign,” she said” “There is not much that can be impactful on the environment.”

The geologist said there would be elevated lithium in the groundwater near lithium mines, but not much more than naturally occurring levels, as lithium is a “very mobile element” entering waterways from exposed rock outcrops.

Saskatchewan aims to balance industry and environmental stewardship, said Jim Reiter, minister of energy and resources for the province.  

Author: EVs won’t solve Canada’s car dependence

However, even with all the environmental precautions in place, mining lithium for EVs is the wrong way to deal with the current climate crisis, says Paris Marx, author of Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation, and host of the weekly podcast “Tech Won’t Save Us.” 

While Marx acknowledges EVs will play a role in cutting emissions, simply switching from internal combustion engine vehicles to EVs will not address the more significant problem of Canada’s car dependence. 

“The focus, especially at the government level, at least in addition to electric vehicles, should be on expanding public transit; ensuring there is safe, reliable cycling infrastructure for people; ensuring that we’re investing in the rail network to make it more reliable and accessible,” he said.

Marx said that if public transit and cycling infrastructure were better, more people would transition to those types of transportation, which would lessen the need for resource extraction. 

He added that promoting alternative transportation doesn’t generate revenue, so that might be a tough sell to governments.  

Marx said governments are focused on increasing the number of electric vehicles because it creates manufacturing and resource extraction jobs.

Looking at lithium extraction through a revenue-generating lens may not lead to the best societal or environmental outcomes, he noted.

One of Marx’s concerns with a potential lithium mining boom in Canada is what he sees as the tendency for provincial governments to minimize environmental regulations to fast-track development. He pointed to Alberta’s oil and gas industry as an example of creating ecological damage because of weakening environmental regulations. 

Right now in Quebec, Marx said, citizens are pushing back on a proposed lithium mine due to a lack of transparency in the process and a fear that it may not be as environmentally sound as the company claims. People in other countries like Spain and Portugal are also against proposed lithium mines due to environmental concerns. 

Marx said lithium being used in EV batteries allows mining and exploration companies to claim their operations are in service of green technology while still being environmentally destructive. 

He said governments should ensure proper environmental regulations are in place before any lithium boom takes off. 

Challenges

 There’s been doubt cast on whether there will even be a lithium boom. 

Global investment bank Goldman Sachs made headlines earlier this year when it released a report that said it expected lithium demand to subside throughout the year. Fellow investment bank Credit Suisse Group AG concurred, saying lithium was due for a market correction. 

“Demand would decrease as ‘supply from unconventional new sources overwhelms demand,’” according to a Bloomberg article on the Goldman Sachs report. There was no mention in the article as to what these unconventional new sources may be. 

China’s headstart on the rest of the world regarding rare earth minerals is also of concern. While western governments are waking up to their importance now, China has spent the last few decades shoring up its rare earth minerals extraction operations in places like Africa that have a lot of resources. Currently, much of the EV battery supply chain runs through China because of this.

Creating a North American EV battery supply chain is the impetus of many of United States president Joe Biden’s recent legislative acts, including the current Inflation Reduction Act, which encourages EV companies to expand operations and raw material sourcing in North America.

However, even with this legislation, automakers are making deals elsewhere, like Ford’s agreements announced in April and July to procure lithium from Argentina. 

Snow Lake Lithium’s CEO Philip Gross said the company has tried to engage major North American and European automakers in discussions about lithium sourcing. While some conversations have happened, it’s a slow process. 

“They’re moving at the speed of an OEM (original equipment manufacturer),” Gross said. 

Automakers themselves remain tightlipped. Representatives from Ford, Toyota and BMW, declined to comment, while Volkswagen (before their announced deal with the Canadian government) and General Motors representatives could not be reached. Tesla has not had a media relations department since 2018 and does not respond to media inquiries. 

Nissan spokesperson Didier Marsaud said the company is “not involved in any research or manufacturing activities” about EV batteries. Stellantis spokesperson Lou Ann Gosselin said: “It is too early in the supplier sourcing, manufacturing, construction process for us to discuss these kinds of details.”

Lastly, ”battery technology is continuing to progress. While lithium is the main element required in current EV batteries, there is no guarantee it will continue to be in the future. If another form of battery technology is developed, the lithium boom could become a bust. 

Read the full series Lithium on the Prairies:

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