Trudeau government does spadework on minerals crucial to future economy

OTTAWA — The Trudeau government is digging for intelligence on the role Canada's mining sector could play in providing the United States and other key trading partners with crucial minerals and metals — from cobalt to tellurium — considered building blocks of the new economy.

Natural Resources Canada plans to hire a British firm to provide pricing forecasts and analysis of global supply and demand between 2020 and 2030 for about two dozen vital minerals used in products like solar cells, permanent magnets and rechargeable batteries.

The move comes as Canada works on a joint plan with the United States to ensure reliable access to these minerals and foster future competitiveness of the U.S. and Canadian mining industries.

The effort flows from a commitment last June by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump to develop steady, secure supplies of so-called critical minerals in the face of China's dominance in much of the field.

Earlier this year, the U.S. commerce secretary issued a report that found America's heavy reliance on foreign sources of critical minerals created the potential for "strategic vulnerabilities to both our economy and military."

The report includes dozens of recommendations to address the deficit.

Of "particular interest" to Canada in the U.S. strategy are plans to secure critical minerals through investment and trade with allies, say internal briefing notes released to The Canadian Press by Public Safety Canada.

Canadian officials were quick to note that of the 35 mineral commodities deemed critical to the U.S., Canada was identified as a major import source for 13.

This includes U.S. dependence on Canada for all its imports of cesium, used for drilling fluids in the oil industry and in atomic clocks, and rubidium, which has applications including photocells and electronic tubes, point out the notes, obtained through the Access to Information Act. 

Collaboration on critical minerals with Washington could attract investment to Canadian exploration and mining projects as well as spur job creation and economic growth in various industries, the briefing notes say.

In addition to being important ingredients of defence and security technologies and consumer electronics such as smartphones, critical minerals and related elements are key to green-economy innovations such as electric-vehicle batteries and renewable energy production and storage, the notes add.

They also underscore China's decades-long strategy to control global critical mineral production and processing, making it a leading supplier of gallium, graphite, lithium and rare-earth elements.

"Basically China has a stranglehold on many of the key minerals and metals that you need for things like electrification and batteries and so on," said Pierre Gratton, president of the Mining Association of Canada.

Working with the U.S. could make it more cost-effective for Canadian companies to supply certain minerals and elements, Gratton said.

Potentially, Canada could enter into agreements that guarantee the U.S. will buy specific amounts of particular minerals at fixed prices, Gratton said. "And that creates the market conditions to develop some of those elements that (the U.S. is) currently not getting, or where they feel they're too vulnerable in terms of relying on the Chinese."

Like the United States, the European Union wants secure access to responsibly and sustainably produced critical minerals to help make the transition to a low-carbon economy, the federal briefing notes point out. Japan and Korea, meanwhile, are seeking new, more diverse global mineral supplies.

Australia, a significant supplier of rare-earth minerals, is also working with the United States on establishing reliable streams of needed commodities.

Ottawa seeks forecasting data that explores the extent to which production from Canada's mining sector "can fill any supply deficits and emerging demand" in the U.S. and where the greatest market opportunities lie, says the newly published Natural Resources notice on plans to award a $148,500 contract to London-based Roskill Consulting Group.

"The findings should also be assessed against the relative role other significant producing nations can play, such as Australia, in fulfilling the import needs of the United States and other key countries such as Japan and South Korea."

In early October, Cynthia Kierscht, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, hosted Shawn Tupper, associate deputy minister of Natural Resources Canada, at the first critical-minerals working group meeting in Washington.

The group will continue talks in coming months to finalize the joint plan. Natural Resources Canada had no immediate comment on the plan's progress.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 3, 2019.

Jim Bronskill , The Canadian Press