3 Ways Cleantech Solutions Can Help Canada’s Mining Sector Grow Sustainably In A Net-Zero Economy
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Mining is among Canada’s most important economic sectors, having contributed 5% of the nation’s nominal GDP and employed 692,000 individuals across 115 communities in 2020. According to the Mining Association of Canada, the industry is also the largest private-sector employer of Indigenous people, accounting for over 16,500 Indigenous workers. As the global economy transitions toward a net-zero future, Canada’s mineral wealth and capacity for manufacturing electric vehicles (EVs) from start to finish are expected to create favorable conditions for the mining sector. As a result, there is a strong push to adopt EVs both in Canada and among key trading partners such as the United States and the European Union, where EV sales are projected to increase from 4% and 14%, respectively, in 2021, to 27% and 42%, respectively, by 2030.

However, mining companies face new challenges in incorporating environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles as part of Canada’s Paris Agreement commitments. According to Canada’s GHG inventory, the mining sector’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions increased from 4.3 Mt CO2 eq to 6.4 Mt CO2 eq between 2015 and 2019. A recent PwC report notes that to unlock the sector’s full value, Canadian companies will have to decarbonize through a combination of solutions that integrates clean energy, ESG reporting and carbon offsetting into their operations. This will allow them to navigate upcoming regulatory changes. Likewise, being able to extract key metals and minerals more sustainably may give them a competitive advantage in the global battery supply chain. In a series of interviews on how Canada’s mining sector can reach net-zero goals by 2050, leading experts highlight that electrifying mining equipment and leveraging new technologies like microbial and cosmic-ray muography solutions can help the industry reduce its emissions and grow sustainably.

Deploying electric vehicles in mining – a win-win for the sector

A recent report from Ernst & Young (EY) mentioned that Canadian mining companies have been looking closely at electrifying their operations to cut costs, boost their licenses to operate and contribute to a more sustainable sector. Previously, renewables and low-carbon solutions were not cost-effective compared to diesel-powered vehicles, but with improved economics, technological development and the introduction of climate disclosure rules, the International Energy Agency (IEA) and EY project that renewables will account for 60% of the mining sector’s capacity additions by 2040.

Additionally, research from Queen’s University has noted that the annual operating costs of EVs (CA$179,900) are now more viable (compared to diesel engines, CA$410,859), with significant benefits to the working environment for miners and the ability for mining companies to scale their operations deeper into the ground.

Bruce Dudley, Senior Vice President of The Delphi Group, states that “the electrification of the mines and EV adoption would bode well for the sector. As global demand for minerals and metals increases, Canadian mining companies will face ongoing challenges accessing these deposits in deeper and widespread locations along with the requirements to responsibly extract these resources.”

Dudley adds that with ongoing improvements in EV technology and battery storage, “the mining companies can save operational costs associated with fuel and ventilation systems, better manage the health and safety of nearby communities and factor in a broader array of climate change and regulatory risks.”

Despite the benefits, operating EVs can be challenging, with mines located in remote areas and lacking the infrastructure for recharging. Alongside, Canada’s mines currently remain built around 20th-century infrastructure. Thus, the sector faces short-to-medium-term structural challenges when it comes to fully adopting electrification and EVs, such as high up-front capital costs and necessary changes like reskilling workers and integrating digital solutions across the extraction and transportation stages.

For these reasons, Dudley highlights that “the public and private sectors should continue collaborating on devising best policy mechanisms that incentivize technology development and deployment to be broadly adopted in the mining sector.” As mining provides the key materials for EVs, and as other countries are also looking to build their end-to-end supply chain infrastructures, Dudley observes that “by developing technological solutions and integrating them into the mining sector to reduce GHG emissions, Canadian products and companies would gain a market advantage and access to lower cost of capital in a net-zero global economy.”

Emerging microbial solutions could unlock new value and reduce mining waste

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), EVs and battery storage will account for roughly half the global growth in mineral demand from clean energy technologies until 2040, with the market for sustainably sourced minerals projected to create over US $3.5 trillion worth of annual value and almost 87 million jobs, globally, by 2030. These trends give Canada a unique opportunity to leverage emerging cleantech solutions in servicing global mining demand and extract minerals more sustainably and cost-effectively. Moreover, as climate change increases stress on water resources, Canadian mining companies will also have to factor in their water usage and better manage mining waste and tailing ponds to boost operational efficiency and uphold the sector’s global low-carbon advantage. To unlock new value and reduce mining waste, cost improvements in microbial solutions could provide mining companies with scalable ways of implementing sustainable practices, such as replacing traditional energy and chemical-intense resource extraction and restoration techniques with a more efficient approach that uses half the energy of conventional mineral processing.

Professor John Steen, EY Distinguished Scholar in Global Mining Futures at the University of British Columbia, states that “for mining companies looking to reduce their carbon footprint and minimize the impact on surroundings, microbial solutions provide a more natural way to process ore and treat mine waste.” Furthermore, as global markets adopt net-zero rules and pay more attention to how the minerals are sourced from an ESG perspective, he adds that “microbial biotechnology’s application will allow companies to reduce their emissions, which should position them in good standing when accessing finance and obtaining permits from capital markets and governments.”

A new report commissioned by Natural Resource Canada (NRCan) notes that, alongside these advantages, implementing a circular economy approach to mining could provide substantial benefits for companies, allowing them to go beyond incrementalism in their mining operations and to reprocess tailings materials in order to extract leftover minerals.

Vikramaditya Yadav, Chief Executive Officer at Tersa Earth, notes that “tailings materials are becoming a growing concern, and their increasing growth poses a risk to the natural and human environment. For these reasons, microbial solutions enable the circularity of operations to take place in the mining sector. This helps reduce on-site mining waste and water usage, and also, more critically, extracts metals using natural processes, so less energy and chemicals are used.”

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) states that the current production rate of many essential metals is likely to be inadequate to satisfy future demand. The IMF further highlights that, given the global supply chain risks and only a handful of countries possessing these minerals, the mining sector would have to innovate and extract “green metals” to increase supply and meet the demand for sustainably sourced minerals. Using microbial solutions and other innovative methods to extract and process green metals in Canada, Yadav expects that “battery and vehicle manufacturing companies that need these minerals would be incentivized to set up their operations in the country to reduce supply chain risks and keep their GHG footprint low. This would help Canada become an attractive jurisdiction for mining and manufacturing businesses and create high-skilled jobs across various sectors of the economy.”

Cosmic-ray muography can reduce costs and energy usage during the exploration stage

As countries make concerted efforts to attain Paris Agreement goals and hit net-zero targets by 2050, the IEA projects that demand for raw materials could increase sixfold by 2040. For Canada’s mining companies, meeting global demand will require increasing exploration efforts and sourcing mineral deposits in more efficient ways, as most near-surface mineral deposits have already been discovered. This means that companies will have to search deeper underground and consider more off-site exploration. According to Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration, broader adoption of technological solutions could allow mining companies to scale exploration and conduct searches more cost-effectively than by traditional methods. Based on University of Glasgow research, rapid improvements in cosmic-ray muography—which provides x-ray-like imagery of underground density anomalies—can help reduce unnecessary, invasive and costly drilling, which could, in turn, lower energy usage, water consumption, and carbon emissions during mining exploration.

Gary Agnew, CEO & Co-Founder of Ideon Technologies, offers the following comparison regarding the need to increase production by more sustainable techniques: “Similar to how medical imaging like x-rays and computed tomography (CT) scans have enabled keyhole surgery in the human body, the same opportunity lies with cosmic-ray muography.” He adds that “by leveraging cosmic-ray muography, along with new AI algorithms and geostatistical methods, mining companies can better target subsurface deposits and develop more detailed 3D density profiles of subsurface anomalies.”

Agnew notes that through broader insights into those anomalies, “mining companies can reduce their drilling activity and carbon footprint by ten times and identify exploration targets with 95% or higher certainty. Moreover, in a fast-moving global supply chain, mining companies have to be more resourceful in their exploration efforts to get minerals to market. Using cosmic-ray muography can help these companies save time and improve the economics of exploration.”

Around the world, there is a growing understanding that a clean energy transition will require countries to secure essential mineral supply chains and process these minerals more efficiently than competitors to shift away from traditional energy sources. As a result, in Canada’s 2022 Budget, the federal government unveiled plans to implement the nation’s first Critical Minerals Strategy (CMS) to capitalize on the growing international need for key minerals. As part of the Budget and the CMS, CA$79.2 million has been allocated to building publicly available integrated data sets that are intended to inform critical mineral exploration and development. In addition, the federal government has set up a new 30% Critical Mineral Exploration Tax Credit for specified mineral exploration expenses incurred in Canada.

From a mining exploration perspective, Agnew notes, “the recent federal government measures are positive because the mining industry and technology developers will have more opportunity to gather insights from new data sets and collaborate on exploration projects. Complementary measures such as the tax credit also create the right incentives to adopt new technologies that should allow mining companies to make data-driven decisions and drive sustainable growth in the sector.”

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