The close proximity of Ontario's Ring of Fire, Manitoba's Thompson Nickel Belt and low carbon-emitting hydro power, give Canada an unparalleled opportunity to become a long-term, sustainable producer of stainless steel, the enviro-metal. If only the sustainability of the northern boreal forest could be assured as well.
By Patrick Whiteway
Massive deposits of chromite and nickel have been discovered in the 'Ring of Fire' under the boreal forest of northwestern Ontario and plans by Cliffs Natural Resources and Noront Resources respectively to develop them are well underway. How this development is managed by the federal and provincial governments could be historically significant for resource development in Canada.
Canada's existing nickel mines and concentrators (at Thompson, Sudbury, Reglan and Voisey's Bay), smelters and refineries (at Thompson, Sudbury and Long Harbour) are located in four provinces (Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland) and are operated by two companies (Vale and Xstrata). The development of new nickel mines and concentrators in Ontario's 'Ring of Fire' and at Nunavik (Reglan South) in Quebec by other companies demands that all four provinces give due consideration to maximizing resource efficiency and long-term sustainability on behalf of all Canadians. (map by P. Whiteway)
The scale of the undertaking is huge. It could, in the next 10 years, create Canada's first chromite mine and open up a large area of nothern Ontario via air, rail and road links to future mineral development. With an appropriate level of long-term visionary leadership, the Ring of Fire development could also transform Canada into the lowest-carbon-emitting source of stainless steel on the planet.
How? Well, almost all of the things that go into making stainless steel - nickel, chromium, iron, scrap stainless steel and low-carbon emitting hyro-electric energy - are readily available within a 500 km radius of the Ring of Fire. Putting them all to good use in a co-ordinated effort will be the challenge.
What is not in place is a co-operative agreement with the native people of northwestern Ontario and a commitment on the part of the key corporate players to protect the source of these people's livelihood - the boreal forest. That could be a deal breaker.
A feasibility study to construct a $2-billion railway to link the isolated northern property to existing infrastructure just north of Lake Superior is expected soon.
To benefit from this unprecedented opportunity, Canadians should demand a high level of inter-provincial cooperation.
Is Canada's existing national mineral development policy sufficiently equipped to guide this process?
AT THE PRESENT TIME, CANADA'S NATIONAL MINING policy does NOT include a requirement for companies developing mineral resources to do everything possible to add value to those resources before exporting them to other countries. It should.
If it did, then metal "concentrates" would be processed here in Canada, thus maximizing benefits to all Canadians. This would include the processing of primary chromite and nickel into stainless steel. But would such an enterprise be economic?
Game-changing hydro electric developments are presently taking place in Manitoba. And, over the next few years, as the world's major economies adopt some form of carbon tax or cap-and-trade system for managing carbon emissions, this source of electrical power will give Canada a distinct competitive advantage in the global economy.
Our national mineral development strategy should, therefore, include a requirement to use mineral resources to our advantage by processing them prior to export.
The close proximity of the 'Ring of Fire' to the Thompson Nickel Belt in Manitoba, where smelting and refining facilities are in place, makes the development of a domestic stainless steel melting capacity worthy of serious investigation. Manitoba should do everything within its power to make such a 'brownfields' development attractive to existing stainless steel producers.
Such a long-term vision would be a shinning example of inter-provincial co-operation, resource efficiency and sustainable development that would benefit all Canadians.
"Power to the (other) Provinces", by Jan Carr. Globe and Mail, Saturday, July 31, 2010. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/power-to-the-other-provinces/article1656514/
Access to land resources is an emerging sustainability issue for mining companies and environmental groups alike. In the southeastern United States, for example, coal mining companies want to mine coal by a method called mountain top removal. They are pitted against environmental groups which want to use the same mountains for erecting a string of wind turbines to generate renewable energy in perpetuity. See: "A Battle in Mining Country Pits Coal Against Wind," by Tom Ziller Jr., The New York Times, Sunday, August 14, 2010. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/15/business/energy-environment/15coal.html?_r=1&hpw
Recent studies have shown that mountain top removal does negatively impact the natural environment. See: "Mountain Mining Damages Streams" by Natasha Gilbert in Nature, August 9, 2010. https://www.nature.com/news/2010/100809/full/466806a.html
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