Province beefs up mining department with $5M investment
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This week’s Central Canada Minerals Exploration Convention in Winnipeg is the first time the mining industry has met en masse since before the pandemic.
During that time span demand for critical minerals that are part of the electrification supply chain has spiked, which means mineral exploration companies around the world are scrambling to find critical minerals such as lithium and to increase production in minerals such as copper and nickel.
Manitoba was once the darling of the sector having the jurisdiction with the highest ranking in the Fraser Institute’s annual survey. But the province’s reputation has sagged as has actual exploration activity.
The province’s Natural Resources and Northern Development Minister Greg Nesbitt used the conference as the venue to announce a $5-million investment in beefing up the department that industry officials have long complained was understaffed.
Nesbitt said hiring has already started to fill 19 positions — increasing the size of the department by 50 per cent — in the hopes of speeding up the review and processing of mining permits and increasing Indigenous participation in mineral development activities.
Despite the province’s slumping reputation among the industry in the recent past, there was a bit of a buzz at the well-attended conference at the Victoria Inn on Monday. Major mining companies like Vale and HudBay gave presentations. Several drilling companies who attended said they are close to or at capacity.
That’s because exploration activity is now getting close to historic highs.
Exploration intention in Manitoba for 2022 is at about $154.6 million, an increase of about 28 per cent over last year.
Vale’s manager of Canadian exploration, Enrick Tremblay, said his company’s exploration activity in the province is at historic highs. He said the company intends to do about 75,000 metres of exploration drilling this year and next, not counting the underground exploration drilling it does from its existing underground mines.
Exploration companies like Snow Lake Resource and Grid Metals currently have drilling programs underway. Others include Foremost Lithium, poised to spend a couple million dollars this year drilling a project it owns, also in the Snow Lake region.
The Tantallum Mining Corp. of Canada (Tanco), 60 kilometres northeast of Lac du Bonnet, is the only producing lithium mine in the country (although there are others about to come into production in Quebec and elsewhere), It currently ships about 5,000 tonnes of lithium concentrate to its sister company in China every month.
But Bill Curry, vice-president of Sinomine, the Chinese company that owns Tanco, said it is doing a pre-feasibility study on building a lithium processing facility in Manitoba, something that would require several hundred million dollars of investment. Snow Lake Resources recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Korean battery giant LG Energy Solutions to do the same thing.
Nesbitt said, “We will see how it all shakes out. We are at the starting stage right now. Can Manitoba support two lithium plants? I don’t know. But the more value-added work we can do in Manitoba the better. For instance, why can’t we do a battery plant in Manitoba?”
One industry official — who formerly worked for the province — said it’s about time the province re-invested in its mines branch staff.
“Several industry players said today that the province is woefully under-explored,” he said.
Some believe that is because of the province’s poor support services, which Nesbitt said is being addressed by the new investment.
“I know we have much more work to do to reduce red tape, gain your confidence and increase exploration activity with the province,” Nesbitt told conference attendees on Monday morning. “I’m here to tell you we are open for business.”
In addition to staffing increases, the investment in the department will be used to enhance the province’s geological survey, a clearinghouse for historical studies on mineral formations in the province.
As well the Mining and Mineral Development Fund — which is administered by the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce — will accelerate its deployment of $10 million previously allocated by the province. That fund provides non-repayable funds up to the $300,000 for projects in the North that create economic development and jobs.
Several exploration companies have already accessed some of that pool of money.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.