Quebec critical mineral strategy blurs environmental lines

Sharon Oosthoek
November 30, 2022

Editor’s note: as the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity starts next week in Montreal, all eyes will be on this country’s approach to preserving its rich biodiversity. As our environment writer Sharon Oosthoek learned, observers will find the respect for Quebec’s extensive biological resources may be challenged by the economic and technological demands of other environmental priorities. Aggressive efforts in the name of fighting climate change could in themselves represent yet another threat to biodiversity — robbing Peter to pay Paul, with natural riches that cannot be replaced.

In the fall of 2020, Quebec launched plans to produce electric vehicles, develop battery recycling technologies, and exploit the province’s reserves of graphite, lithium, nickel, and cobalt for battery and EV parts.

Fast-forward two years, and municipalities and environmental groups are now sounding the alarm over a recent spike in exploratory mining claims for these critical minerals in natural areas and near parks in the province’s southern tourist region.

Quebec’s electric vehicle and battery policies, outlined in the Plan for the Development of Critical and Strategic Minerals and the Strategy for the Development of the Battery Sector, are meant to help reduce the province’s use of greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels and to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. However, according to Anne-Josée Laquerre, executive director and co-founder of Quebec Net Positive, a non-profit organization that aims to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy, the latest mining claims amount to “tunnel vision”, which fail to account for potential damage to important areas of biodiversity.

In August, a coalition of provincial and national environmental groups released a map showing a sharp rise in exploratory mining claims over the previous 18 months, ranging from 49.1 percent to 408 percent in four tourist regions of southern Quebec. That represents an increase nearly five times greater than anywhere else in the province.

The largest increase in mining claims was in Lanaudière (408%), followed by the Outaouais (211%), the Laurentians (71.2%) and the Mauricie (49.1%).

“These are claims in protected areas, or areas near citizens that have cottages, in areas where there is tourism, or areas that would be seen from Mont Tremblant,” Laquerre told Research Money. “It’s our greenbelt.”

No requirement to consult

This summer, about two dozen municipalities in the southern tourist regions launched a poster campaign to oppose graphite mining projects on their territory. They are asking the provincial government for a moratorium.

“We are not against mining, but the problem is that it should be done outside resort areas, and protect the lakes,” Marc L'Heureux, mayor of the municipality of Brébeuf and prefect of the regional county, MRC des Laurentides, told Radio Canada.

Despite the campaign, few residents are aware of the claims, nor does the provincial Mining Act require companies to consult or even inform municipalities or Indigenous communities before acquiring new mining claims on their territories, said Laquerre.

“If the local population is unaware and government is pushing this, investors in these mines may not realize their investment could be at risk because social acceptance has not been established,” she said.

Laquerre is also keen to point out the irony behind mining for EV battery minerals in forested areas that act as carbon sinks. Trees pull carbon from the atmosphere in a process known as carbon sequestration. Losing forests means losing a nature-based mitigation strategy for climate.

Plus, these forested ecosystems, along with their freshwater lakes and rivers, support biodiversity, which is crucial for human health. Plants filter atmospheric and water-based pollutants, bacteria decompose wastes, insects pollinate flowers, and tree roots hold soil in place to prevent erosion.

This last point about biodiversity could gain some traction for the mining claims’ critics in December, as Montreal hosts the UN Biodiversity Conference. The conference will bring together governments from around the world to agree to a new set of goals for nature over the next decade.

Participants at November’s COP27 climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt publicly called for firm action in Montreal, highlighting how the climate and biodiversity crises are deeply interconnected and must be addressed simultaneously. Habitat destruction and pollution are the main drivers of biodiversity loss, but scientists expect losses to accelerate as the climate continues to change.

Human activity has altered almost 75 percent of the earth’s surface, squeezing wildlife and nature into an ever-smaller corner of the planet. Around 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction — many within decades.

Location, location, location

According to an interactive map published by Quebec’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests, exploratory mining claims include those on the edge of major parks and recreation areas such as Mont Tremblant and Lac Taureau.

There are also mining claims in ZECs, or zone d'exploitation contrôlée (controlled harvesting zones), such as ZEC Bras-Coupé-Désert, ZEC Pontiac, and ZEC Capitachouane. ZECs were set up by the province in the 1970s, when they replaced private hunting, fishing, and trapping clubs as a means of providing public access to these types of recreational activities.

While ZECs are sometimes referred to as conservation areas, they are “areas that have been accommodated to host hunters and fishermen,” said Marc Legault, a geology professor at Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue.

That said, there are some claims in areas that are designated as protected. “But if you click on them (in the ministry’s map), they tell you there’s no exploration permitted,” Legault pointed out. “It’s just that the claims are over 20 years old, and were made before those areas were sealed off from exploration.”

A mining claim gives its owner the right to explore a piece of land for minerals, including drilling, stripping, and deforestation. The claim is good for three years and can be renewed indefinitely, as long as the owner can prove they have spent a minimum amount of money on exploration.

Minerals chez nous

Quebec’s party leaders discussed the municipalities’ moratorium request at the leaders’ debate during the province’s fall election.

“Je vais être très clair,” said Premier François Legault. “Il y a des milieux où il y a de l’acceptabilité sociale; d’autres où il n’y en a pas. Quand il n’y a pas d’acceptabilité sociale, il n’y aura pas d’exploitation. On va exploiter là où le milieu est d’accord pour qu’on exploite.”

Legault’s new minister of Natural Resources and Forests, Maïté Blanchette Vézina, has yet to weigh in. “Je suis consciente que c’est un enjeu d’actualité. Je suis en train de prendre connaissance des dossiers et de rencontrer les différents intervenants. Je vous reviendrai donc plus tard avec ma position sur le sujet,” she said e-mail statement to Research Money.

Meanwhile, Valérie Fillion, general manager of the Quebec Mineral Exploration Association, told Radio Canada a moratorium would have significant implications.

“If we wait, we will not see what is under our feet in Quebec, we will end up importing the raw material,” said Fillion, likely referring to the fact most critical minerals for EV technology are mined in China. Governments around the world are trying to reduce their dependence on China, which is increasingly seen as a national security risk.

While Laquerre agrees concerns over China’s dominance in battery minerals are legitimate, she maintains domestic mining operations need greater scrutiny for their impact on natural environments.

“The quest for finding minerals for the energy transformation is being done for a very good reason,” she says. “The challenge is we need to figure out where it makes sense to have a mine without having too many negative impacts.”



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