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Growing Manitoba’s mining to mobility economy

What capital investment is needed to process Manitoba nickel and lithium to feed the huge demand for electric batteries in cars, computers, and cordless tools? 
Manitoba should be taking steps to become a lithium battery producer instead of just supplying raw materials.

It was great to see Manitoba representatives promote our mining at the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada and Central Canada Mineral Exlopration conferences. It’s also very encouraging to see $230 million is being spent by Vale on nickel drilling and exploration around Thompson over the next few years. Kudos to the province of Manitoba for stimulating mine exploration to regain the mining advantage we used to have, considering our province dropped from being the third most attractive mining jurisdiction in the world in 2017 to 37th in 2022. Yet, I feel there are some pieces that Manitoba should consider to maximize the opportunities. What capital investment is needed to process these metals in Manitoba to feed the huge demand for electric batteries in cars, computers, and cordless tools? 

Tesla vehicles have been driving the demand for minerals for electric batteries. This world demand for nickel for batteries will increase a stunning 14-fold in the next eight to 10 years! Two years ago, Elon Musk pleaded with the mining industry, “Please mine more nickel.” In the past four years, the company has built three gigafactories for their EVs and increased their production from 300,000 to 1.3 million cars a year, signed a $1 billion per year agreement to buy nickel from Australia for next 10 years, invested in a nickel mine in Minnesota, is investing in battery supply, and has signed a nickel agreement with Vale Canada. Tesla has now hired Canadian staff to explore all areas of nickel supply and policy that would further their corporate goals. Tesla wants to assure a battery mineral supply over the next 20-plus years. The Ukraine/Russia war has been good news (perversely) for Canada as we can be a reliable, green, critical mineral supplier. More so, what will Ford, Stellantis, Toyota, and GM EV platforms require as they try to surpass Tesla? All good news for Manitoba’s critical mineral deposits, right? 

We must note that the refining and smelting process is where many high-paying, long-term jobs are that generate various taxes and massive hydro sales. Thompson’s original nickel mine complex used as much electricity as the City of Winnipeg. How much Hydro revenue was lost when Thompson’s mine complex downsized over the past 20 years? Remember when Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams required Vale to build a mining complex before they were allowed to mine anything at Voisey Bay? Now Vale sends Thompson nickel concentrate to Sudbury and Voisey Bay for processing as their facilities are more efficient today. Governments have always been able to influence business investments. Manitoba needs to do the same. 

By comparison, Ontario has been much more proactive. They have been promoting their “Ring of Fire” of critical minerals and other aspects of growing an EV industry — mineral supply, battery development, recycling, EV manufacturing, etc. In May 2021, Sudbury held a sold-out “Mining to Mobility” conference that attracted investors and federal government funders. The Thompson Chamber of Commerce released a Manitoba as Green Energy Capital brief and suggested to host a Green Energy Summit before that Sudbury event (missed opportunity?). Sudbury has since received huge financial support from the feds for battery innovation and mine waste extraction. The City of Windsor is getting millions for a new battery plant that will create 2000 jobs. Billions are going into new EV manufacturing plants in Ontario. A federal government representative said in Sudbury last year, “Even the most conservative estimates predict a multi-trillion-dollar global market economy that Canada cannot afford to ignore.” Let alone Manitoba! 

In May 2022 the Thompson Chamber of Commerce formally invited the new Tesla Canada senior policy associate to discuss Northern Manitoba’s Ring of Fire and our EV assets. No reply has been received. Another Tesla Canada employee’s role is to focus on global battery minerals and responsible sourcing policy. He has been in discussion with Ontario and Quebec. How about Manitoba? Could our provincial government collaborate with Vale, Snow Lake Lithium, Flying Nickel, Manitoba Hydro, etc. to invite Tesla to discuss all aspects of EV development in Manitoba beyond just mineral exploration? (Tesla could install their fast and very reliable superchargers in rural and northern areas which are devoid of any such infrastructure) 

Kudos to Snow Lake Lithium. Their CEO has mining plans for Snow Lake and is/was working with a South Korean company to build a processing plant near Winnipeg. On the other hand, a second Manitoba lithium mine is owned by a Chinese company. Why do Canadians allow our critical minerals to be extracted, sent to China, and purchased back as batteries? What investors are needed for Manitoba to build a battery plant using our low-cost hydro advantages where batteries could then be shipped south to markets through our highway trade corridors and north through Churchill to Europe and elsewhere? Demand for battery manufacturing and recycling will be colossal! At least three giga battery factories are needed in Canada. Even oil-rich Alberta is planning for one with federal government support. 

There are other aspects to maximize the mining potential in Manitoba. A pre-feasibility study on building a lithium processing facility in Manitoba is underway and can add tremendous value to our economy. What incentives would it take for Vale to rebuild the nickel refinery and smelter in Thompson that could return hundreds of lost jobs since 2018? Thompson should be more than a feed for nickel concentrate to other processing locations in Ontario and Newfoundland. Millions of dollars in revenue from mining taxes, income taxes, and hydro sales would stay in Manitoba, as before. We simply can’t expect our abundant hydro supply and low rates to be enough to spur the industry. 

Thompson started in 1956 with a partnership between Inco and the province and some $100 million in investment to build a mine, hydro dam, rail line, and a new town with hospitals and schools based on a proposed 50 year nickel supply. Today, experts believe there is even more nickel in the ground, although deeper. As most of Thompson’s mine and city infrastructure now exists, Manitoba should maximize those advantages and benefits. Partnerships should be developed with the province, mining companies, and EV manufacturers and suppliers. 

The list goes on. Recent technological advancements in bio-mining could recover critical minerals from mine waste in tailing areas at some 10,000 abandoned mines in Canada in a low-cost and a low-carbon format. Ontario is building a $17 million Centre for Mine Waste Biotechnology to do just that. A pilot project is already in the works. Where and how will those critical minerals be processed? Will that mostly be in Ontario? Thompson has huge tailings that could be processed to help fill Canada’s gap in critical mineral supply. 

All in all, our provincial government needs to gather forces with the private sector and explore all aspects of the future for green energy transportation. These massive opportunities are beyond the scope of any single department (Mines, Northern Affairs, Economic Development, Transportation, Climate, Tourism, Hydro) as each sector has their own narrow mandate. The province needs to designate one person/office to oversee this broad and growing industry and develop smart collaboration. A Green Energy Summit in Thompson with mining companies, battery developers, EV and airship manufacturers, universities, and Manitoba Hydro would be a good start as Sudbury is doing. Vale, which is a gigantic iron ore company, is breaking off a Vale Base Metals division to attract more base metal investment to better focus on critical mineral supply. The timing is perfect to take advantage of this massive global trend towards clean transportation. Manitoba can be a leader in green energy, high tech initiatives and development. Who in our city and/or our province will provide that bigger and bolder vision and take the lead? 

This op-ed first appeared in the February issue of Lifestyles 55 magazine.

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