Critical Minerals in the Context of Canada: Concepts, Challenges and Contradictions
How to Cite
Increased use of renewable energy, coupled with electrification of the economy, is considered important in efforts to limit future climate change. This energy transition is predicted to increase demands for some commodities, many of which are now labelled as critical mineral. The quest for such commodities is now a persistent theme for the resource industry and emerging government policies. This review for non-specialists explains several key concepts but also explores some challenges and apparent contradictions in the context of Canada.
Canada now has a list of 31 critical minerals, but this includes some major commodities for which domestic production is significant and supply risk is low. The differences between our list and those of other jurisdictions reflect our more specific definitions. Most other commodities on Canada’s list are also identified by other countries and some are specifically linked to the energy transition. These include cobalt, lithium, manganese, nickel, graphite and vanadium (used in electric vehicle batteries and static energy storage), rare earth elements (REE; used for magnets in EV motors and wind turbines) and some rarer elements (e.g. germanium, gallium, indium and tellurium) used in photovoltaic (solar) energy systems. Some of these are potential primary products (e.g. lithium, graphite and REE) but many others (e.g. cobalt, platinum group elements and the photovoltaic elements) are byproducts from the production of major commodities, notably nickel, copper and zinc. The REE represent coproducts that are closely associated in nature and very hard to separate from each other; they are produced as a group.
There are some specific challenges in exploring for and developing critical mineral resources. The end-use technology driving demand evolves on a timescale of years, but mineral exploration and development now typically take multiple decades. Material substitutions and unpredictable developments in technology complicate the exact prediction of future demands. The forecasts of overall relative demand growth are impressive, but for some key commodities global production will remain small in absolute terms, which may limit the potential for new discoveries. Simple measures of grade and tonnage are not always guarantees of viability, because deposits of some commodities (e.g. the REE) are mineralogically complex. Byproduct commodities cannot be produced in isolation, and many of these are only extracted in smelting and refining. Domestic production of these commodities is effectively lost if concentrates are exported for processing. The emissions and environmental impacts associated with production of critical mineral resources will also become important if such activity is to be linked to wider climate goals. This may present challenges in northern Canada, where renewable or low-carbon energy options are limited. Most draft Land Use Plans in the north presently emphasize large-scale land conservation, which could limit future exploration access before resource potential is fully assessed. Given the strong divisions of opinion about resource development, especially in the north, controversy and polarized debate will not easily be avoided.
There are no simple answers to challenges that are political or jurisdictional rather than technical, but there is definitely a need for more public geoscientific information. This will help to identify areas of greatest potential, evaluate known deposits and contribute to future sustainable development. For many of the commodities on our critical mineral resources list, data for Canada remains incomplete, especially in more remote regions that are generally considered to have the highest potential.
- Agusdinata, D.B., and Liu, W., 2023, Global sustainability of electric vehicles minerals: A critical review of news media: The Extractive Industries and Society, v. 13, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.exis.2023.101231.
- Angus, C., 2022, Cobalt: Cradle of the demon metals, birth of a mining superpower: House of Anasi Press, 336 p.
- Anonymous, 2014, The rare earth elements industry in Canada - Summary of evidence: Report of the Standing Committee on Natural Resources, Parliament of Canada, 30 p., https://www.ourcommons.ca.
- Bakker, F., Delaney, B., Mercer, B., and Qi, D., 2011, Technical report on the Nechalacho deposit, Thor Lake Project, Northwest Territories, Canada, Report NI-43-101: Avalon Rare Metals, Inc., 289 p., https://avalonadvancedmaterials.com/_resources/43-101_Technical_Report-Mar13-11.pdf.
- Banner, J., 2022, No magnets, big power: BMW’s fifth-generation electric motor: MotorTrend Newspaper Article, January 13, 2022, https://www.motortrend.com/news/bmw-ix-m60-brushed-electric-motor-tech-deep-dive/.
- Bloodworth, A., 2019, Metals and decarbonization: A geological perspective: British Geological Survey, Science Briefing Paper, 8 p., https://www.bgs.ac.uk/download/science-briefing-paper-metals-and-decarbonisation/.
- Clean Energy Canada, 2017, Mining for clean energy: Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, Simon Fraser University, BC, https://cleanenergycanada.org.
- Connelly, D., 2021, Nechalacho: Canada’s first rare earth producer: Paper presented at Northwest Territories/Nunavut Geoscience Forum, November 2021.
- Crawford, I., and Odell, S., 2022, Will mining the resources needed for clean energy cause problems for the environment?: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Climate Portal, https://climate.mit.edu.
- Currie, K.L., and van Breemen, O., 1996, The origin of rare minerals in the Kipawa syenite complex, western Quebec: Canadian Mineralogist, v. 34, p. 435–451.
- Deniau, Y., Herrera, V., and Walter, M., 2021, Mapping community resistance to the impacts and discourses of mining for the energy transition in the Americas (2nd edition): MiningWatch Canada, 55 p., https://miningwatch.ca/sites/default/files/2022-03-04_report_in_english_ejatlas-mwc.pdf.
- Dostal, J., 2016, Rare metal deposits associated with alkaline and peralkaline igneous rocks, in Verplanck, P.L., and Hitzman, M.W., eds., Rare Earth and Critical Elements in Ore Deposits: Reviews in Economic Geology, v. 18, p. 33–54, https://doi.org/10.5382/Rev.18.02.
- Downing, B., and Van Nieuwenhuyse, R., 2020, The past and future legacy of Windy Craggy: Resourceworld Magazine, https://resourceworld.com/the-past-and-future-legacy-of-windy-craggy/.
- Emsbo, P., Lawley, C., and Czarnota, K., 2021, Geological surveys unite to improve critical mineral security: Eos, v. 102, https://doi.org/10.1029/2021EO154252.
- Environmental Justice Atlas and MiningWatch Canada, n.d., Mapping community resistance to the impacts and discourses of mining for the energy transition in the Americas: MiningWatch Canada, Backgrounder Report, https://miningwatch.ca/sites/default/files/en_mapping_the_mining_impacts_of_the_energy_transition.pdf.
- Froese, S., Kunz, N.C., and Ramana, M.V., 2020, Too small to be viable? The potential market for small modular reactors in mining and remote communities in Canada: Energy Policy, v. 144, 111587, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2020.111587.
- Fuchs, H.D., and Hilger, W., 1989, Kiggavik (Lone Gull): An unconformity-related uranium deposit in the Thelon basin, Northwest Territories, Canada, in Uranium Resources and Geology of North America: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Conference Proceedings, p. 429–454, https://inis.iaea.org/collection/NCLCollectionStore/_Public/20/065/20065597.pdf?r=1.
- Goldie, R., 2005, Inco comes to Labrador: Flanker Press, St. John’s, NL, 364 p.
- Goodenough, K.M., Wall, F., and Merriman, D., 2018, The rare earth elements: Demand, global resources, and challenges for resourcing future generations: Natural Resources Research, v. 27, p. 201–216, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11053-017-9336-5.
- Goodenough, K.M., Deady, E., and Shaw, R., 2021, Lithium resources, and their potential to support battery supply chains, in Africa: British Geological Survey, 21 p., https://nora.nerc.ac.uk/id/eprint/530698.
- Government of Canada, 2021, Small modular reactors (SMRs) for mining: Natural Resources Canada, 22698, https://natural-resources.canada.ca/.
- Government of Canada, 2022, The Canadian critical minerals strategy: Government of Canada, https://www.canada.ca/en/campaign/critical-minerals-in-canada/canadian-critical-minerals-strategy.html.
- Government of Northwest Territories, 2014, Northwest Territories mineral development strategy: Minerals, Oil and Gas Division, Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment, 32 p., https://www.iti.gov.nt.ca/sites/iti/files/nwt_mineral_development_strategy.pdf.
- Government of Northwest Territories, 2022, Healthy land, healthy people: GNWT priorities for advancement of conservation network planning 2016–2021: Government of Northwest Territories, https://www.enr.gov.nt.ca/en/services/conservation-network-planning/healthy-land-healthy-people.
- Government of Nunavut, 2007, Parnautit - A foundation for the future: Mineral exploration and mining strategy: Government of Nunavut, https://gov.nu.ca/sites/default/files/Parnautit_Mineral_Exploration_and_Mining_Strategy.pdf.
- Government of Ontario, 2022a, Ontario’s critical minerals strategy: 2022–2027: Unlocking potential to drive economic recovery and prosperity: Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry, 53 p., https://www.ontario.ca/files/2022-03/ndmnrf-ontario-critical-minerals-strategy-2022-2027-en-2022-03-22.pdf.
- Government of Ontario, 2022b, An introduction to Ontario’s critical minerals, with highlights from the Ontario mineral inventory: Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry, 71 p., https://www.geologyontario.mndm.gov.on.ca/mines/ogs/rgp/Ontarios_Critical_Minerals_Introduction.pdf.
- Government of Quebec, 2020, Critical and strategic minerals: Quebec plan for the development of critical and strategic minerals, 2020–2025: Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, 56 p., https://cdn-contenu.quebec.ca/cdn-contenu/ressources-naturelles/Documents/PL_critical_strategic_minerals.pdf?1604003187.
- Graedel, T.E., Harper, E.M., Nassar, N.T., Nuss, P., and Reck, B.K., 2015, Criticality of metals and metalloids: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 112, p. 4257–4262, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1500415112.
- Gunn, G., and Petavratzi, E., (compilers), 2018, Briefing note on raw materials for batteries in electric vehicles: British Geological Survey, https://nora.nerc.ac.uk/id/eprint/534463/1/batteryRawMaterial.pdf.
- Huleatt, M.B., 2019, Australian resource reviews: Scandium 2019: Geoscience Australia, Canberra, 11 p., https://doi.org/10.11636/9781925848458.
- Humphries, M., 2019, Critical minerals and U.S. public policy: United States Government, Report R45810, 51 p., https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/details?prodcode=R45810.
- International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), 2022, ICMM Comment — A response to the Canadian Government’s critical minerals review: ICMM letter, 6 p., https://www.icmm.com/en-gb/stories/2022/critical-minerals.
- International Energy Agency (IEA), 2020, World energy outlook 2020: IEA Publications, 463 p., https://iea.blob.core.windows.net/assets/a72d8abf-de08-4385-8711-b8a062d6124a/WEO2020.pdf.
- International Energy Agency (IEA), 2022, The role of critical minerals in clean energy transitions [Revised]: IEA Publications, 285 p., https://iea.blob.core.windows.net/assets/ffd2a83b-8c30-4e9d-980a-52b6d9a86fdc/TheRoleofCriticalMineralsinCleanEnergyTransitions.pdf.
- International Energy Agency (IEA), 2023, Critical minerals market review 2023: IEA Publications, 82 p., https://iea.blob.core.windows.net/assets/afc35261-41b2-47d4-86d6-d5d77fc259be/CriticalMineralsMarketReview2023.pdf.
- Jowitt, S.M., 2022, Mineral economics of the rare-earth elements: MRS Bulletin, v. 47, p. 276–282, https://doi.org/10.1557/s43577-022-00289-3.
- Kerr, A., 2011, Rare-earth element (REE) mineralization in Labrador: A review of known environments and the geological context of current exploration activity: Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Natural Resources, Geological Survey, Report 2011-1, p. 109–145.
- Kerr, A., van Nostrand, T., Dickson, W.L., and Lynch, E., 2009, Molybdenum and tungsten in Newfoundland: A geological overview and a summary of recent exploration developments: Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Natural Resources, Geological Survey, Report 2009-1, p. 43–80.
- Kerr, A., Walsh, J.A., Sparkes, G.W., and Hinchey, J.G., 2013, Vanadium potential in Newfoundland and Labrador: A review and assessment: Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Natural Resources, Geological Survey, Report 13-1, p. 137–165.
- Kneen, J., 2022, Canada’s critical minerals strategy – A response to the Department of Natural Resources Discussion Paper: MiningWatch Canada, September 15, 2022, letter, 6 p., https://miningwatch.ca/sites/default/files/critical_minerals_strategy_critique_0.pdf.
- Lèbre, É., Stringer, M., Svobodova, K., Owen, J.R., Kemp, D., Côte, C., Arratia-Solar, A., and Valenta, R.K., 2020, The social and environmental complexities of extracting energy transition metals: Nature Communications, v. 11, 4823, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-18661-9.
- Lee, J., Bazilian, M., Sovacool, B., and Greene, S., 2020, Responsible or reckless? A critical review of the environmental and climate assessments of mineral supply chains: Environmental Research Letters, v. 15, 103009, https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9f8c.
- Maloney, J., (chair), 2021, From mineral exploration to advanced manufacturing: Developing value chains for critical minerals in Canada: Canadian Government, Report of the Standing Committee on Natural Resources, 60 p., https://www.ourcommons.ca/Content/Committee/432/RNNR/Reports/RP11412677/rnnrrp06/rnnrrp06-e.pdf.
- McNulty, B.A., and Jowitt, S.M., 2021, Barriers to and uncertainties in understanding and quantifying global critical mineral and element supply: iScience, v. 24, 102809, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.isci.2021.102809.
- Mining Newswire, 2021, U.S. Geological Survey to remove uranium from critical minerals list: Mining Newswire Newsroom Article, November 18, 2021, https://www.miningnewswire.com/u-s-geological-survey-to-remove-uranium-from-critical-minerals-list/.
- Mitchell, C., and Deady, E., 2021, Graphite resources, and their potential to support battery supply chains, in Africa: British Geological Survey, Open Report OR/21/039, 30 p., https://nora.nerc.ac.uk/id/eprint/531119/1/Graphite%20supply%20chains%20in%20Africa_Report.pdf.
- Mudd, G.M., Werner, T.T., Weng, Z.-H., Yellishetty, M., Yuan, Y., McAlpine, S.R.B., Skirrow, R.G., and Czarnota, K., 2019, Critical minerals in Australia: A review of opportunities and research needs: Geoscience Australia, Record 2018/051, 58 p., https://doi.org/10.11636/Record.2018.051.
- Natural Resources Canada, 2022, Minerals and the economy: Government of Canada, https://natural-resources.canada.ca/our-natural-resources/minerals-mining/mining-data-statistics-and-analysis/minerals-and-the-economy/20529.
- Nicholls, J., 2022, A brief history of critical minerals: Resourceful, CSIRO Newsletter, Issue 27, p. 2–4, www.csiro.au/resourceful.
- Nunavut Planning Commission, 2021, Leading the way through land use planning: Nunavut Land Use Plan, Draft, 2021: Government of Nunavut, 110 p., https://www.nunavut.ca.
- Ontario Mining Association, 2022, Critical minerals analysis: Ontario Mining Association, 102 p., https://oma.on.ca/en/ontario-mining/2022_OMA_Mineral_Profiles.pdf.
- Panetta, A., 2021, Canada, a critical-minerals superpower? Let’s pause for a reality check: CBC News, November 26, 2021, www.cbc.ca/news/world/.
- Pell, R., Tijsseling, L., Goodenough, K., Wall, F., Dehaine, Q., Grant, A., Deak, D., Yan, X., and Whattoff, P., 2021, Towards sustainable extraction of technology materials through integrated approaches: Nature Reviews Earth and Environment, v. 2, p. 665–679, https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-021-00211-6.
- Petavratzi, E., Gunn, G., and Kresse, C., 2019, Cobalt - Commodity review: British Geological Survey, 72 p., https://nora.nerc.ac.uk/id/eprint/534461/1/BGS_Commodity_Review_Cobalt.pdf.
- Romero, A., Carvalho, M., and Millar, D.L., 2016, Optimal design and control of wind-diesel hybrid energy systems for remote Arctic mines: Journal of Energy Resources Technology, v. 138, 062004, 10 p., https://doi.org/10.1115/1.4033677.
- Sandlos, J., and Keeling, A., 2021, Mining Country: A History of Canada’s Mines and Miners: Lorimer and Company, Toronto, ON, 224 p.
- Schulz, K.J., DeYoung, J.H., Jr., Seal, R.R., II, and Bradley, D.C. (editors), 2017, Critical mineral resources for the United States - Economic and environmental geology and prospects for future supply: USGS Professional Paper 1802, https://doi.org/10.3133/pp1802.
- Sherlock, R.L., Scott, D.J., MacKay, G., and Johnson, W., 2003, Sustainable development in Nunavut: The role of geoscience: Exploration and Mining Geology, v. 12, p. 21–30, https://doi.org/10.2113/0120021.
- Simandl, G.J., 2023, Critical Materials – Global outlook and Canadian perspective: Journal of Mineral and Material Science, v. 4, 1057, https://doi.org/10.54026/JMMS/1057.
- Simandl, G.J., and Paradis, S., 2022, Vanadium as a critical material: Economic geology with an emphasis on market and the main deposit types: Applied Earth Science, v. 131, p. 218–236, https://doi.org/10.1080/25726838.2022.2102883.
- Simandl, G.J., Prussin, E.A., and Brown, N., 2012, Specialty metals in Canada: British Columbia Geological Survey, Open File 2012-7, 52 p.
- Simandl, G.J., Burt, R.O., Trueman, D.L., and Paradis, S., 2018, Economic Geology Models 4. Tantalum and niobium: Deposits, resources, exploration methods and markets - A primer for geoscientists: Geoscience Canada, v. 45, p. 85–96, https://doi.org/10.12789/geocanj.2018.45.135.
- Simandl, G.J., Paradis, S., and Simandl, L., 2023, Future of photovoltaic materials with emphasis on resource availability, economic geology, criticality and market size/growth: Canadian Institute of Mining Journal, v. 14, p. 133–157, https://doi.org/10.1080/19236026.2023.2168419.
- Simandl, L., Simandl, G.J., and Paradis, S., 2021, Economic Geology Models 5. Specialty, critical, battery, magnet and photovoltaic materials: Market facts, projections and implications for exploration and development: Geoscience Canada, v. 48, p. 73–91, https://doi.org/10.12789/geocanj.2021.48.174.
- Skirrow, R.G., Huston, D.L., Mernagh, T.P., Thorne, J.P., Dulfer, H., and Senior, A.B., 2013, Critical commodities for a high-tech world: Australia’s potential to supply global demand: Geoscience Australia, Canberra, 126 p., www.ga.gov.au.
- Struzik, E., 2023, The North is key to Canada’s critical mineral rush. Will its environment be protected this time?: The Narwhal, July 10, 2023, https://thenarwhal.ca/canadian-north-critical-mineral-strategy/.
- The Globe and Mail (editorial board), 2022, Canada has a strategy for a critical minerals. But there are critical issues: The Globe and Mail, Opinion newsletter, January 25, 2022, https://www.theglobeandmail.com.
- Tortell, P., Kunz, N., Edzerza, A., and Porter, D., 2023, A critical look at critical minerals: Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP), Policy Options, February 21, 2023, https://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/february-2023/critical-minerals-indigenous-prosperity/.
- Van Gosen, B.S., Verplanck, P.L., Seal, R.R., II, Long, K.R., and Gambogi, J., 2017, Rare-earth elements, in Schulz, K.J., DeYoung, J.H., Jr., Seal, R.R., II, and Bradley, D.C., eds., Critical Mineral Resources of the United States —Economic and Environmental Geology and Prospects for Future Supply: USGS Professional Paper 1802, p. O1–O31, https://doi.org/10.3133/pp1802.
- Weng, Z., Jowitt, S.M., Mudd, G.M., and Haque, N., 2015, A detailed assessment of global rare earth element resources: Opportunities and challenges: Economic Geology, v. 110, p. 1925–1952, https://doi.org/10.2113/econgeo.110.8.1925.
- Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, 2022, More critical thinking needed about minerals: WCS Newsletter, September 2022, https://www.wcscanada.org/eNews/aspx.
- World Bank Group, 2017, The growing role of minerals and metals for a low carbon future: World Bank Group, Washington, DC, http://hdl.handle.net/10986/28312.
- World Bank Group, 2020, Minerals for climate action: The mineral intensity of the clean energy transition: World Bank Publications, Washington, DC, 112 p., https://pubdocs.worldbank.org.
- Zoellner, T., 2011, Uranium: War, energy and the rock that changed the world: Penguin Books, 354 p.