The strategic mistake made in allowing Russia to have global dominance in oil and gas cannot be repeated as the world looks to massively ramp up production of critical minerals, Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson asserted this week.
Demand for critical minerals and metals — such as lithium, graphite, nickel, cobalt and copper — is exploding as demand climbs for everything from smartphones and laptops to wind turbines, solar panels and electric cars.
“Simply put, there is no energy transition without critical minerals, and this is why critical mineral supply chain resilience is an increasing priority for advanced economies,” Wilkinson said, in the written forward to a draft of his promised critical minerals strategy, released this week.
In an interview with The Canadian Press, Wilkinson said that resilience will only come if western countries don’t allow a geographic concentration of mineral production in countries that can’t be trusted.
“Where we are going to have an absolute requirement for these minerals, being dependent on countries that do not always share our perspectives on global affairs, and that have shown the ability at times to use their control of some of these resources as a weapon, is not a very good strategy,” he said.
“In the current context, China and Russia are the number 1 and number 2 producers and processors of many of these minerals. And so I think there is an understanding in the democratic world that we do need to ensure that there are secure and stable sources of supply.”
Following Russia’s invasion in Ukraine, Europe is facing an oil and gas crisis as it tries to disentangle itself from heavy reliance on Russian fossil fuels, without easy alternative sources. That is a wake-up call for western democracies in the critical minerals field, Wilkinson said.
He said “the emerging reality for all of us” is that when it comes to critical mineral supply chains we “actually do need to be considering where these minerals are coming from, and how we can actually work with other democratic countries to ensure security of supply.”
Right now China is the biggest global player in critical minerals — it is the world’s largest producer of half of the 31 minerals and metals Canada has listed as critical to its economy.
While each country has slightly different lists and definitions of critical minerals, typically they are substances which have no substitute, are limited in supply, economically important, and increasingly concentrated in both extraction and processing.
Russia is among the three biggest sources of palladium, scandium and titanium, produces one-tenth of the world’s nickel, and six per cent of its aluminum.
Canada’s draft critical minerals strategy is focusing on six minerals and metals the federal government has decided have the greatest potential for economic growth and employment opportunities: lithium, graphite, nickel, cobalt, copper and rare-earth elements.
Canada currently doesn’t produce any lithium or rare earth elements (a group of 15 elements classified together) but has reserves of both. According to the United States Geological Survey, in 2021 Canada produced one per cent of the world supply of graphite, five per cent of nickel, 2.5 per cent of cobalt and 2.8 per cent of copper.
Russia is slightly ahead of Canada in all but lithium, which it also doesn’t produce. China is ahead in everything but nickel, responsible for 60 per cent of the world’s rare earth elements, 82 per cent of the graphite, 14 per cent of the lithium, nine per cent of the copper and four per cent of nickel.
There is massive space for countries like Canada to move up that supply chain, with both the World Bank and International Energy Agency predicting that by 2050, demand for critical minerals and metals will have grown 500 per cent.
Wilkinson said Canada’s final critical mineral strategy will be published in the fall, but noted the government already budgeted $4 billion towards it. Funding a strategy that isn’t yet complete isn’t the usual course of action, said Wilkinson, but the government knew it couldn’t wait to get money on the table.
Expanding production is a big part of the plan, and that will include efforts to speed up approval of new exploration and production projects, particularly with federal review processes through the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada.
“We do need to find ways to accelerate our ability to get things done,” Wilkinson said.
There is also $1.5 billion for infrastructure given many of the minerals and metals are located in parts of the country that are hard to get to, said Wilkinson.
—Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press