Digging for green minerals a priority for the North, says Canadian minister

Heavy machinery clears brush from where the Nechalacho mining project’s pit will be, back in 2021. One of the federal government’s priorities as it moves to a net-zero economy is to make it easier to step up critical mineral mines like this one, which extracts rare earths. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

N.W.T. MLA says sentiment amounts to call for deregulation of mining

Speeding up the regulatory process for critical mineral mines in the North is a goal of the federal government, according to Canada’s natural resources minister.

“Critical minerals are essential for us to be able to successfully execute an energy transition,” said Jonathan Wilkinson. If Canada doesn’t mine more critical minerals, he said, it can’t make batteries for electric vehicles needed to reduce emissions from transportation.

Rare earths, for example, are a critical mineral said to be crucial in technology like computers, LED displays, wind turbines and electric vehicles. Canada’s first rare earth operation is the Nechalacho mining project in the N.W.T.

Of the 31 minerals deemed critical by the federal government, 23 can be found in the N.W.T. and 25 are in the Yukon.

“We have to find ways to expedite [these projects] in a manner that’s consistent with environmental sustainability,” said Wilkinson. He also said getting such projects down to zero emissions or close to zero emissions is important, and suggested biomass, biofuels or synthetic fuels as an option for mines that can’t connect to hydroelectric power.

But Kevin O’Reilly, the MLA for Frame Lake in the N.W.T., believes the federal government is suggesting to deregulate critical mineral mines. He said it’s not environmental regulations that keep mines from opening.

“The evidence shows most of the delays, if there are any with projects, are because of proponents. It’s not because the process takes too long. It’s because proponents don’t supply the right kinds of information, they don’t answer questions in a timely fashion,” he said.

O’Reilly said if the federal and territorial governments want to speed up the review process, it should settle outstanding Indigenous land claims of the Dehcho and Akaitcho regions.

Agreeing on priorities

Natural Resources Canada announced Thursday that the N.W.T. and Yukon had signed up to participate in its Regional Energy and Resource Tables, along with three more provinces.

The tables are meant to be conversations, set up by the federal government, to help figure out what common goals it has with territories and provinces for reducing emissions and building a net-zero economy. A spokesperson said Nunavut would be invited to participate in the next phase.

“This is not the federal government telling the territories what their priorities should be within this process. It’s about sitting down and agreeing on what the priorities are and then advancing some of these particular projects,” said Wilkinson.

He said discussions with the two territories will likely revolve around renewable energy projects, infrastructure adaptation and the mining industry.

In a statement to CBC News, Caroline Wawzonek, the N.W.T.’s minister of industry, tourism and investment, said a net-zero economy “may be a challenge for the N.W.T.” and that because of its location, it’s not ready for net-zero mining either.

“We are trucking, barging and flying energy-intensive diesel into our territory to live — let alone mine,” she said. “Federal investments in roads and especially our hydro potential are needed to get us to the point where we can talk about [economic] opportunities.”

Related stories from around the North: 

Greenland: Five Eyes alliance urged to forge ties with Greenland to secure minerals, Thomson Reuters

Liny Lamberink, CBC News

Liny Lamberink is a reporter for CBC North. She previously worked for CBC London as a reporter and newsreader. She can be reached at liny.lamberink@cbc.ca

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