Nova Scotia’s Department of Natural Resources and Renewables has developed a draft list of “critical minerals” it says are essential for a transition from “carbon-based energy” to “mineral-based energy” to achieve net zero and combat climate change.
They are: cobalt, copper, gallium, germanium, graphite, indium, lithium, manganese, niobium, rare earth elements (REE), tantalum, tin, tungsten, and zinc.
Gold — the only metal that is being mined in the province — is not on the list.
Nova Scotia currently has one open pit gold mine being operated by Atlantic Gold in Moose River, and St Barbara Ltd, the Australian company that owns that Touquoy mine, has three more proposed gold mines on the Eastern Shore that are undergoing joint federal and provincial impact assessments. Another company, Anaconda, has an open pit mine planned for Goldboro.
Related: Halifax Examiner’s Fool’s Gold series on the gold rush and mining in Nova Scotia
The draft list of critical minerals was presented during a June 1 virtual “Critical Minerals Strategy Engagement Session” hosted by Janice Zinck, the new executive director of the Geosciences and Mines Branch of DNRR. Before joining DNRR earlier this year after Don James retired as executive director, Zinck worked as director of critical minerals and strategic resources at Natural Resources Canada.
Zinck said the draft list would be used to develop a “critical minerals strategy” for eventually sourcing, producing, and processing the minerals in the province.
While Natural Resources Canada (NRCAN) has put together a list of 31 critical minerals for Canada’s transition away from fossil fuels, Nova Scotia’s list includes just 14.
According to Zinck, to develop the provincial list, minerals were ranked based on four criteria that she presented during the webinar:
- Exploration and / or mineral resources development potential (has there been production of this mineral in Nova Scotia, are there demonstrated exploration results, does Nova Scotia have waste with potential for this mineral, is this mineral a niche development opportunity for Nova Scotia?)
- Required for Nova Scotia and Canada to reach emission reduction targets and transition to a low-carbon economy
- Global demand and supply risks
- A strategic opportunity for Nova Scotia
Zinck said the list will be reviewed and finalized by September this year, and then reviewed again every two years. The aim will be to promote exploration and production of these critical minerals throughout the province.
Zinck also said there would be a communications strategy to sell the critical minerals strategy to the public, and there was “ongoing engagement” with Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change to find a “balanced approach” of conservation and mineral development.
According to a presentation by provincial geologist Ron Mills, many of the critical minerals on the draft list may be in southern Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, with others along the Parrsboro or Eastern shores.
No uranium, no gold on the list
Zinck said uranium was assessed, but not seen as a strategic mineral for the province, noting that it is prohibited to explore for uranium in Nova Scotia.
One of the first questions Zinck fielded from the nearly 70 participants was whether gold had been considered.
“Gold was considered along with many other minerals, as noted before,” she replied. “And based on the assessment criteria, it did not make the list.”
In an anonymous poll towards the end of the session, participants were invited to post their suggestions of minerals that should be added to the list, and gold was the first to appear in those suggestions.
The question of gold came up again when Saint Mary University geology professor Jacob Hanley pointed out that while the supply of gold may be secure, gold deposits often occur with many of the critical minerals on the list, and that “the value of the gold may justify the cost of co-producing some of the critical minerals of interest.”
Zinck replied that they had looked at this, and that there is “an opportunity to look at co-extraction,” but that this would not put gold on the list.
To this, Andrew Ghattas, director of the Critical Minerals Centre of Excellence with NRCAN, added that there may be an opportunity for mining gold that is found in deposits in association with critical minerals. But, he said:
The challenge has been that a lot of projects have just tended to focus on the gold, and left all of the other potential minerals to the side. That’s sometimes because of the costs associated with the processing, or the margin just doesn’t feel like it’s worth their time to get involved in running two lines. So how do you encourage firms to take that step of potentially mining or processing both of those streams?
Ghattas said it would be important in such cases to make sure that it wasn’t just the gold that was being mined and processed, but also the critical minerals.
Ghattas also said that Natural Resources Canada had looked at whether gold should be included in its critical minerals list, and decided it should not be because there were “no supply issues” with the precious metal, and it doesn’t have any of the “supply chain issues associated with the critical minerals.”
Nova Scotia has been going for gold
It remains to be seen if this new list of critical minerals will mark a shift away from focus on gold exploration and mining in Nova Scotia, which has been experiencing a new gold rush — the fourth in its history.
In recent years, the vast majority of mineral exploration licenses in Nova Scotia are for gold, even several within the Halifax and Dartmouth municipal water supply areas, and close to contaminated historic mine sites. Similarly, most of the Mineral Resources Development Fund grants that DNRR has been handing out to prospectors and mining companies have also been for gold exploration.
There are four new open pit gold mines being planned for Eastern Shore — the three that Atlantic Gold has proposed for Beaver Dam, Fifteen Mile Stream, and Cochrane Hill, and another that Anaconda has planned for Goldboro.
Earlier this year Atlantic Gold pleaded guilty to provincial and federal environmental charges, and paid $250,000 in fines and penalties, and is now awaiting approval to expand its waste rock area at the Moose River mine, and to put tailings from the three new gold mines it has proposed into the exhausted open pit there.
The Mining Association of Nova Scotia (MANS) has also received provincial funds to promote gold and gold mining, as it did when it hosted the 2019 “Gold Show.” MANS also promotes gold as if it were a critical mineral for the transition to electric vehicles.
This ignores the realty that there is no shortage of gold supply on the planet, a fact that both NRCAN and DNRR took into account in deciding which minerals qualify as “critical” in the transition away from fossil fuels.
According to the World Gold Council, 205,238 tonnes of gold have been mined throughout history, and because the metal is “virtually indestructible,” it’s almost all still around, 46% as jewellery, and another 39% of it doing nothing more useful than sitting in bank vaults or safes.
So there’s no shortage of gold to supply the small amounts that may be needed for new technologies or medical applications, and no need for any new destructive open pit gold mines, which leave behind massive toxic tailings that pose enormous environmental and health risks, and need to be monitored for hundreds or even thousands of years.
‘We can’t mine our way out of the climate crisis!’
That doesn’t mean there isn’t also concern about the effects that the increased mining for “critical minerals” will have.
In her presentation to the DNRR critical minerals engagement session, Diane Webber of Nova Scotia Geological Survey division noted that between 2020 and 2040, the global demand for critical minerals is expected to increase six-fold.
MiningWatch Canada has responded to this push for more mining to fuel the energy transition, with the warning, “We can’t continue using the same extractivist logic that got us here in the first place. We can’t mine our way out of the climate crisis!”