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Ottawa’s critical minerals strategy calls for faster project approvals

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Canada will need to speed up regulatory decisions on critical mineral projects if it is to become a world leader in the manufacture of batteries, electric vehicles, wind turbines and solar panels, says a new national strategy published today.

“Simply put, there is no green energy transition without critical minerals,” Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said as he launched the strategy in Vancouver on Friday.

“[The government of Canada] recognizes that to meet our ambitious climate and economic goals for the transition to a net-zero economy, additional mechanisms must be put in place to accelerate and facilitate strategic critical mineral projects from investment and financing opportunities, through regulatory approvals and development, until production”.

Minerals such as lithium, graphite, nickel, cobalt and copper are essential ingredients for the manufacture of electric vehicles, computer chips and weapons. With demand for low- or no-emissions technology expected to skyrocket as the world moves toward a post-carbon economy, Friday’s strategy heralds shortages of these critical materials, or what it calls “like-minded countries.” “who use access to precious minerals as weapons. .

Although China is not mentioned by name in Canada’s Natural Resources strategy, some observers have warned that Beijing could cut off access to critical minerals to foster its own high-tech industries. China currently controls most of the world’s critical mineral processing.

To counter Beijing’s supremacy in this field, Canada, the US and their allies have pledged to boost the extraction, processing, manufacturing and recycling of critical minerals.

Increased mining will mean more Canadian mines. But before any new mining project can take place, it must undergo a rigorous environmental review and permitting process, sometimes more than once.

The new strategy document acknowledges that faster environmental reviews and regulatory oversight are needed to meet the challenge, and that Canada’s current patchwork of project review processes is not up to the task.

“For major development projects where federal and provincial environmental or impact assessments are required,” the strategy document says, “the Government of Canada is committed to meeting the ‘one project, one assessment’ objective.”

Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson speaks to reporters as he addresses the caucus on Parliament Hill, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022, in Ottawa. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

Wilkinson was more direct about what needs to happen during the press conference.

“It can’t take us 12 to 15 years to open a mine in this country. Not if we want to achieve our climate goals,” Wilkinson told reporters.

Strategy ‘sounds a lot of alarm bells’

Wilkinson said that while regulatory agencies need to streamline their processes, his department will set up a concierge service to help project proponents navigate the review process.

The minister said the department will speed things up without “taking shortcuts”.

But Mining Watch, an environmental and human rights advocate, is not convinced. Jamie Kneen, co-director of the group’s program, said federal regulations have been undermined over time and now exempt some projects from federal assessments.

“It sets off a lot of alarm bells,” Kneen said.

In addition to making sure projects cross the finish line, the strategy calls for “meaningful participation” by indigenous communities in decisions about project development and the benefits that flow from it. It also acknowledges that the government will have to make significant investments in electricity and transport infrastructure to access these critical minerals.

“New infrastructure investments aimed at unlocking new mineral projects in resource-rich regions, including highways, railways and ports, are needed to help Canada’s mining industry provide the minerals and metals needed to reach net zero by 2050,” the document says.

The strategy also indicates that Canada wants to work with international partners to develop a tracing process to identify trade in so-called “conflict minerals.” Such a standard, it says, could “prevent products from conflict, child labor and environmentally unsound operations from entering supply chains.”

The Mining Association of Canada, present at today’s announcement, applauded the new document.

“I think this sends a strong signal to the world that Canada is very focused and committed to attracting investment in critical minerals,” said association president Pierre Gratton.

The strategy does not come with any new money. But in the latest budget, the federal government committed up to $3.8 billion over eight years to pursue a critical minerals strategy, including a 30 percent critical minerals exploration tax credit.

That same budget also earmarked money to work with provinces and territories to help developers navigate the regulatory process, especially in the north.

In October, Wilkinson and Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne announced that the federal government would prevent foreign state-owned companies from owning and participating in Canada’s critical mineral sector.

Shortly after that announcement, the Canadian government ordered three Chinese resource companies to sell their holdings in critical Canadian minerals. The government introduced amendments on Wednesday to modernize the Investment Canada Act.