Editor’s Note: This is part three of a four-part series on Indo-Pacific Supply Chain.
The security of critical minerals such as lithium, indium, tellurium, gallium, and platinum group elements and materials supply has become a significant concern for
many governments due to COVID-19 disruptions to global supply chains. In addition to heightened geopolitical concerns on security of supply of critical minerals, it has given China control of many of these supply chains. This is underlining the imperative for Canada to establish a comprehensive critical minerals supply-chain strategy. This will allow Canada to take advantage of the fact that it has abundance of undeveloped resources of all the critical minerals but lacks the downstream manufacturing capacity to create internal demand to get them started.
These minerals and the manufacturing capacity are critical for creating the materials that are now vital for renewable energy, electric vehicles, electronics, and aerospace technologies. A critical minerals supply chain strategy, involving important allies such as Japan would be important. Japan has already established their downstream value-added manufacturing capacity, which can inspire Canada to increase
more their production of these critical minerals.
For example, the E.U., which adopted the European Green Deal in 2019 to deal with short and long term critical material demands that are critical for electric vehicle batteries and energy storage. Similar macroeconomic and political considerations have encouraged allies and competitors into taking swift and more decisive action.
Canada has an abundance of critical minerals but those that are not traditional exchange-traded commodities. The minerals have never been brought to production due to the lack of domestic demand. In many cases, including lithium, the key to creating demand is to be able to begin producing trial quantities of the critical mineral products with international demand that meet the specific requirements of the end-users. Unfortunately, regulations governing the traditional mining industry in most parts of Canada actively discourage bulk sampling of a resource with critical minerals potential at an early stage. What is not well understood in the mineral industry is that for non-traditional commodities with small but growing demand in new technologies, the scale of the operation is determined by the demand for the product, not the size of the resource.
In a number of Indo-Pacific Nations, notably Japan, there are many examples of companies that have been successful in innovating new products. They take advantage of the unique properties of many critical minerals despite not having a domestic supply source. In the past, Japanese manufacturers could rely on China for supply of many of these commodities such as rare earths. However, with domestic demand growing rapidly in China, security of supply is at risk, hence the need for developing new international supply chains from countries like Canada that have the resources.
It can be established by providing initial offtake commitments to aspiring new critical minerals producers in Canada that will help them access the capital to initiate production. This will accelerate new production capacity in Canada that manufacturers in Japan and other Indo-Pacific nations that can take advantage of, specifically through manufactured product expansion. This could include establishing manufacturing facilities in Canada to process critical minerals to create the intermediate products by end-users to create the final products needed in new technologies.
Another avenue available for provincial governments is to accelerate critical minerals production in Canada. They would facilitate access to closed mine sites for entrepreneurial companies to investigate the potential for recovering critical minerals while remediating the long term environmental liability. There are many examples of closed mine sites developed decades ago, where the resources contained elements that had no demand then but do today. Further, provincial governments should consider regulating non-traditional commodities such as lithium. This should be done under a separate act that recognizes the fundamental differences in how critical minerals with relatively small markets can be produced compared to traditional bulk-mined commodities. Changes like these will certainly encourage more rapid development of critical minerals supply chains in Canada for both international and domestic consumers. It can also create new economic development opportunities for Indigenous businesses and remote First Nations communities to participate in developing these resources, which can be done initially at a modest scale with minimal environmental impacts.
Donald Bubar is a geologist with over 40 years of experience in mineral exploration and development in Canada. He is a graduate of McGill University (BSc. 1977) and Queen’s University (MSc. 1981). From 1984 to 1994, he worked for Aur Resources Inc. as exploration manager and later vice-president, exploration. Donald has been president and CEO of Avalon since 1995. He served as a director of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) for nine years and chair of its Aboriginal Affairs Committee from its creation in December 2004 until retiring from the PDAC board in March 2013. Throughout his career, he has been an advocate for increased Indigenous participation in the mineral industry, first through the PDAC and later through the NWT and Nunavut Chamber of Mines. Donald serves on the advisory board to the Faculty of Science of McGill University and on the board of directors of PDAC’s Mining Matters earth science education program.