Ontario Mines Minister George Pirie, a 35-year mining industry veteran before his election in June, says he plans to consider cutting project red tape “fairly shortly” while encouraging more federal investment in the Ring of Fire.
Pirie, who served as head of Placer Dome Canada in the years before of its acquisition by Barrick Gold (TSX: ABX; NYSE: GOLD) in 2006, says Ontario has potential to displace the foreign output of some minerals needed in the multi-trillion-dollar global transition to clean energy. But projects can’t take 12 to 15 years for approval.
“A big part of what we’re doing is looking at the red tape that’s inherent in our system,” Pirie said in a recent interview. “We’ll be talking about that fairly shortly.”
Pirie declined to elaborate on timing or details, but a ministry spokesman said Pirie is “hopeful” about federal Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson suggesting recently that provincial and federal project approvals processes should run simultaneously to save time. Ottawa and the provinces and territories are starting meetings soon to hammer out mining policies.
At stake for Ontario is the development of the Ring of Fire, 540 km northeast of Thunder Bay. Estimates of its economic potential vary wildly and depend on basic infrastructure being developed, but the potential is real and Pirie suggests it could be worth up to $1 trillion.
The province wants to develop the area to feed southern Ontario manufacturing hubs with minerals such as lithium, cobalt, copper and nickel needed for electric vehicle batteries and other industries in renewable energy.
The area’s most advanced project is Ring of Fire Metals’ Eagle’s Nest. According to a 2012 feasibility study, it has an 11-year mine life and an estimated cost US$609 million. Proven and probable reserves are 11.1 million tonnes grading 1.68% nickel, 0.87% copper, 0.87 gram platinum per tonne, 3.09 grams palladium and 0.18 gram gold.
“The Ontario government’s agenda is all about decarbonizing the economy,” the minister said. “There have been billions of dollars in projects that have been announced in southern Ontario in the battery minerals sector. We’ve got minerals in northern Ontario and Ring of Fire is a big part of it.”
South Korea’s LG Energy Solution is involved in several projects, including with automaker Stellantis (NYSE: STLA) on a $5 billion electric vehicle battery plant in Windsor, and buying cobalt from Electra Battery Materials’ (CVE: ELBM) refinery at Temiskaming Shores.
Despite all the talk of billions of dollars in play from the Ring of Fire, developing in the remote muskeg-filled James Bay Lowlands remains extremely difficult. There are no all-season roads and communities are served by airfields.
U.S.-based Cleveland-Cliffs (NYSE: CLF) pulled out of the area in 2013 despite having already spent half a billion dollars to advance chromite deposits there. Infrastructure hasn’t progressed much in the decade since, even though giant BHP (NYSE: BHP; LSE: BHP; ASX: BHP) and Ring of Fire Metals (then called Wyloo Metals) fought for assets.
“The Ring of Fire could be worth millions of billions, or nothing,” Patrick Ryan, who runs the Mining for Facts consultancy, said by email. “BHP and Wyloo came in and excited everyone. However, no other major mining companies touched it and BHP bailed out of a trillion-dollar return? So, in my book it’s a flyer and Wyloo bought it relatively cheap with lots of promises.”
Ottawa announced a $3.8-billion critical minerals strategy in April, though it remains unclear how much of it will be directed to Ontario and its Ring of Fire area, Pirie said.
“It would be great if we had an equal partner in the federal government,” Pirie said. “The responsibility for the Indigenous people is federal. The province is responsible for the resources in the ground. From my point of view, the federal government has got to have a big portion of what’s happening in the Ring of Fire.”
Pirie, Ontario’s first dedicated mines minister in more than half a century after the portfolio had contained northern development, natural resources and forestry over the years, said he’s had “excellent conversations” with federal counterpart Wilkinson.
“He shares the sense of urgency if we’re going to meet our climate goals, if we’re going to decarbonize our economy,” Pirie said. “We need these minerals out of the ground. We’ve got to be masters of our destiny.”
Pirie, who was mayor of Timmins before he ran provincially, was also pleased after meeting local Indigenous leaders of the Webequie and Marten Falls First Nations.
“They’re very, very progressive,” Pirie said. “They want the development to happen. They’re doing a great job with consulting the communities in there.”
The communities are conducting environmental assessments for three all-weather roads running a total of 362 km to serve the area. Terms of reference should be set by the end of the year, he said, with the goal of completing the studies next year.
However, developments face opposition from other Indigenous bands, such as the Neskantaga and several western James Bay communities such as Attawapiskat. The minister said he is open to speaking with all groups.
The minister recounted the formative experience of working among Indigenous miners in Waubaushene, Ont., as a young man. Later as an executive at Placer Dome in the 1990s, he realized the company hadn’t included Indigenous communities enough in its projects.
“We initially thought we were doing a good job as miners. It didn’t take too long to unpack that to realize the generation we had excluded was the Indigenous peoples,” he said. “We had to take responsibility for what was going on in society.”
Education of a slightly different sort is needed for Ontarians to realize the potential and necessity of the local industry, he said. The province should be the world’s top mining destination because its miners have industry-leading project design and environmental skills, but the length of the approvals process shows the mandate from the people to allow mining has been lost, he said.
“We’re complete miners. We’ve got to sell that message,” Pirie said. “Certainly, my children, my grandchildren are all on-board about climate change and our responsibility to change it. Tied into that, to achieve this we have to mine. And we can do it sustainably.”