Canada looking to break into ‘critical’ rare earth elements mining - Article by Jason Fekete
OTTAWA — Canada is quietly staking its claim to being a global leader in a growing multibillion-dollar industry largely unknown to most Canadians but deemed by the government as “critical” to the country’s economy.
Canadian extractive companies, in collaboration with the federal government and other groups, have launched more than 200 exploration projects targeting what are called rare earth elements (REE).
These potentially lucrative rare earths — which include the 15 lanthanide metals on the periodic table plus scandium and yttrium — are increasingly sought after by several major industries for manufacturing their products.
The rare earth elements are split into “light” or “heavy” depending on their atomic number. Rare earths, especially the “heavy” ones, are considered to be critical for manufacturing new technology, clean energy, aerospace, automotive, defence and many other industrial products because of their luminous, magnetic, catalytic and other characteristics.
For example, the materials have become imperative for wind turbines, hybrid and electric cars, cellphones, laptops, LCD screens, medical imaging equipment, rechargeable batteries and many other products.
Canadian deposits often contain much higher proportions of the valuable “heavy” rare earths, meaning Canada is poised to capitalize on extracting rare earth elements, say briefing notes prepared for Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver as part of last summer’s cabinet shuffle.
“Rare earth elements (REE) have been categorized by the government as being critical to Canada’s economy,” say the briefing notes, titled “Secret” and obtained by Postmedia News under access to information legislation.
“Canada could become a significant producer of rare earths over the medium term.”
Rare earths actually aren’t that rare. They are abundant around the world, but very rarely in concentrations that are economically recoverable.
A group of exploration companies, in cooperation with Natural Resources Canada, research centres and other partners, have just established the Canadian Rare Earth Elements Network — an industry-led group whose aim is to secure 20 per cent of the global supply market for critical rare earth products by 2018.
The critical rare earth elements especially sought after by industry — and defined by some governments as crucial — include europium, terbium, dysprosium, yttrium and neodymium.
The House of Commons natural resources committee has just launched a study of the rare earths industry in Canada, while CREEN officials say they have asked the federal government, as part of its 2014 budget considerations, for research and development funding focused on rare earths.
Until 2013, China produced 97 per cent of the world’s supply of rare earths (and 100 per cent of the “heavy” supply).
Canada has more than 200 exploration projects searching for rare earth elements, representing more than half of the world’s exploration projects on REE.
While Canada does not currently produce any rare earths, it could be a key player over the next four to six years, the briefing notes say.
Eleven of the Canadian projects are considered to be at an advanced stage of development, according to federal officials, with seven containing elevated concentrations of the valued “heavy” rare earths.
“Everything green has a little black in it,” said Ian London, chair of the Canadian Rare Earth Elements Network, explaining the importance of rare earths to clean-tech and high-tech industries.
“All of these green technologies that people are talking about are based on products that come out of the ground and/or are processed.”
Like with any extractive project, there are environmental challenges. Many of the REE mines are open pit, while rare earths are generally accompanied by uranium and thorium — radioactive elements, albeit in low quantities.
Building and opening a rare earth mining and processing operation costs between $1.5 billion to $2 billion per mine, London said, although the downstream production value would be tens or hundreds of billions of dollars due to the importance of rare earths in manufacturing new technology.
At least one of the advanced projects, from Avalon Rare Metals, is expected to begin production in 2017, with four other projects potentially starting production between 2017 and 2019, explain the briefing notes.
Avalon’s flagship mine is in the Northwest Territories, while other companies like Quest Rare Minerals and Matamec Explorations are proceeding with projects in Quebec.
“Canada may become a major producer of the valued “heavy” rare earth elements by the 2017 to 2020 time period,” say the briefing notes.
Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) is working closely with industry and academia to develop a rare earth industry in Canada, including the training of needed workers.
Any foreign investment in rare earth elements is subject to a national security review under the Investment Canada Act to ensure potential acquisitions don’t pose national security risks.
“NRCan will continue to closely monitor the global rare earth industry and cooperate with other departments to manage future production and shipments of these resource materials consistent with the government’s strategic objectives.”