A proposed $1 billion investment in Vale’s Thompson mines in the next five years could generate nearly $8 billion in economic activity over the next 45 years, the company’s head of Manitoba Operations told the Thompson Chamber of Commerce Nov. 13.
“What we’re looking at is exploring our ore bodies,” said Gary Eyres, estimating that the proposed investment would be equivalent to opening a new mine in Thompson and saying that it is possible another mine shaft could be excavated down to as far as 6,300 feet. Right now, mining areas extend down to 4,800 feet below the surface. “We haven’t found the end of the ore body yet. Somewhere close by, I believe, is the next Thompson mine.”
If the investment goes ahead, it would result in $7.9 billion worth of economic activity between now and 2065, $7.4 billion more than putting the mines on care and maintenance until 2043 would create. It’s also $5.4 billion more economic activity than would be generated by simply mining out the current areas of T1 and T3 by 2043.
Vale has just started an aerial survey of the Thompson Nickel Belt in hopes of validating some of the signs that exploration activities have turned up.
Right now, Vale Manitoba Operations has about 30 fewer employees than it wants, Eyres says, and there are no plans to cut any more jobs. The reason some jobs haven’t been filled, he said, is because the mining industry around the world is short of skilled workers and that makes it difficult to get people to come to Thompson.
The key to convincing Vale management to invest more in Thompson mines is finding an area with 20,000 or more tonnes of nickel waiting to be mined. The company is also trying to increase the nickel in the concentrate it produces from 14 per cent to 18 per cent so that Vale smelting and refining operations in Ontario and Newfoundland can turn it into 99.9 per cent pure nickel like that which used to be produced in Thompson before the smelter and refinery were permanently closed in 2018.
There' s no prospect for Thompson to be anything more than a mining and concentrating operation ever again, Eyres says.
“We’re not a smelting or a refining operation anymore and the reality is we’re not going to go back to being a smelting or a refining operation because that really doesn’t make sense for our area or the region or the operation,” said Eyres, saying the capital investment required to create smelting and refining facilities is “absolutely massive.”
That said, Eyres believes that there is a possibility in the long-term future for previously mined areas that aren’t currently utilized – like Birchtree and Pipe Lake – to be brought back into production as demand created by production of electric vehicle batteries pushes nickel prices upwards. Currently, stainless steel production is the “bread and butter” of most nickel operations around the world, but the expected growth of the electric vehicle market could spur demand for 50 times as much nickel as is currently produced in the world by as early as 2030.
“The world doesn’t have enough nickel now [for future electric vehicle battery production].” Eyres says, predicting that most of the people at the meeting would be driving either an electric vehicle or a hybrid within 15 years. “That really is the future for us here. It’s the future for nickel.”
In order to take advantage of that future, however, Vale Manitoba Operations needs to upgrade its mining infrastructure.
“We‘ve got a really old mining and concentrating operation,” Eyres said. “We can’t be mining in exactly the same way that we’ve been mining for the last 60 years. We’re fixing the operation in order to produce nickel for the next 30 years.”
Chamber president Raj Thethy said the information that Eyres presented was good to hear.
“Whenever Vale presents there’s always hope and this is definitely very good news,” Thethy said.