Mining Markets

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How to revive exploration in Manitoba


 

The opportunities related to mining and exploration are enormous in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, but mineral exploration in these two provinces is decreasing, and our industry will need to see changes if we are to expect improvement.

Across the country, although there are some exceptions such as Fission Uranium’s uranium discovery in Saskatchewan and Balmoral Resources’ nickel find in Quebec, the lack of exploration activity by junior companies has resulted in a fall-off in discovery rates. Without discoveries, mines rapidly approaching the end of their life will not be replaced, and our once-vibrant mining camps and towns will go into decline, and new mining camps will not be founded.

The plunge in the discovery rate across the country has been unprecedented, and has been caused by five factors:

1) A lack of funds in the market for exploration, resulting from risk-averse, bank-owned brokerage firms that engineered a sell-off of junior stocks to mere cents, causing a profound shift in risk tolerance by investors, and a degradation in investor confidence in the junior industry;

2) This contraction in financing caused desperate junior companies to divert their few remaining dollars into exploring less risky, known mineralization, and away from new greenfield targets, as investors leaned towards high-quality projects closer to production;

3) The rise in costs related to complying with excessive and increasing regulations, consultations, safety and environmental measures have reached a point where only a quarter of junior companies had money for exploration, with the remaining companies becoming the walking dead, or on the brink of getting delisted;

4) The rising cost of pre-production work, as required by best practices, has resulted in resurveying, redrilling, reassaying, researching, repricing and refining mill processes to produce yet another National Instrument 43-101 compliant resource estimate report to reduce real risk, and protect analysts, resource slayers and geo-morticians. It has been exploration overkill at shareholders’ expense, as companies issue an unprecedented number of shares to finance it all;

5) The withdrawal and sterilization of huge areas of land accessible to exploration — promoted and funded in a large part by American and international environmental groups — is ensuring that any dreams of a better life for future generations who could benefit from discoveries in the area are lost forever.

Limited money spent mainly on old, tired resource targets has produced few exciting finds. What financial institutions and governments need to do is ensure exploration is directed to new areas by offering enhanced tax incentives for “new target exploration,” as opposed to definition and development work. Exploring new targets, although of higher risk, is required to revitalize the industry and increase the discovery rate.

Caught in the middle of all this are our First Nations people and communities seeking to benefit, as all residents should, from resources that are extracted in their region. They have rightly pushed back, and want a say in development and a share of revenue from what is happening in their own backyard.

The communities that benefit the least from resource extraction in their area have used their “duty to consult” as leverage in permitting, making it harder for companies in some areas to obtain work permits, and in some instances carry out any kind of exploration work.

This is why provincial governments should adopt some sort of government-resource revenue-sharing model, similar to what’s being done in B.C. and in parts of the territories, to ensure that Aboriginal Peoples see an immediate benefit from supporting resource development.

The sterilization of land by new parks in the name of protection is counterproductive for economic opportunities and the development of skill sets for northern communities and residents. Some northern First Nation communities have unemployment rates of 80%, endure poor infrastructure and lack modern amenities.

Surrounding these communities with parks will only ensure a “wilderness ghetto,” where resources in the region cannot be developed to help fund local community projects, amenities and create jobs. Parks cost more money than they generate, and provide only low-paying and relatively few seasonal jobs.

A new federal government

Federally in Canada, after 10 years of a Conservative government, we have a change. Our new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promises a better relationship with the First Nations people, and perhaps in this there is a chance to address some of the issues affecting the decrease in exploration, with a number of new First Nation members of Parliament.

The good news for Manitoba is that we have two new MPs in Jim Carr, who is the new Minister of Natural Resources, and MaryAnn Mihychuk, who is now the Minister of Employment for Workforce Development and Labour.

Mihychuk was formerly Manitoba’s Minister of Industry, Trade and Mines; is a graduate and professional geologist; and has sat on the board of the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada, where she headed the capital crises committee, and others. I have worked with her on these committees and know she got things done on time and on budget.

She is well aware of the issues affecting exploration and would be a good resource for Jim Carr on mineral policy and taxation-policy related issues. She has experience with major mining companies, and has been a champion for the junior industry, as well as prospectors. We very much welcome both these new ministers, as well as Prime Minister Trudeau’s new government, and look forward to working with them.

In Iceland they have jailed their twenty-sixth banker for crimes in 2007–08, while in the U.S. the bankers got bonuses and the banks got bailouts.

Here in Canada the large corporate banks — who have little tolerance for economic risk — were allowed to take over the major brokerage firms and expand their stranglehold on the economy and exponentially increase their profits. In this government-sanctioned process, the banks squeezed out or crippled most mid-sized brokerage houses and instructed their brokerage firms to sell off their junior holdings, which devastated the juniors’ share prices.

The main source of capital for juniors virtually disappeared, guaranteeing discovery rates would plummet. The effect of this action by the banks has still not been addressed, nor is there a reasonable mechanism for replacing exploration funds. The feds allowed this buyout and security regulators went along with it, so they should be the ones to fix it.

A super flow-through tax break of 150% for exploration of new targets for two years would go a long way to bring back the high-risk investor, and perhaps save our industry.

I suggest limiting it to new targets, because that would result in the discoveries that the producers are in dire need of, as reserves dwindle. This project risk-reduction step should be the role of majors, so that the cost would initially be net neutral to government.

Another strategy along the same lines would be to temporarily (e.g., three years) double the federal Mineral Exploration Tax Credit, which generates funds for grassroots, early stage exploration.

Exploration has slowed for sure in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, but it is more related to the general capital crises for junior exploration than policy or land tenure issues.

Saskatchewan is a shining example for other provinces on land tenure and mineral policy.

But in Manitoba not all is fine. Exploration in this province has plummeted more than any other province despite the economic incentives that the provincial government has brought in, as far as grants, tax incentives for Manitoba investors and the doubling of assessment credits.

This is not because of potential — Manitoba has world-class discoveries, and Hudbay Minerals has recently opened two new mines.

So, with all the great potential and proven track record of discovery, and great provincial exploration incentives, why is exploration activity so exceptionally low?

As good as these provincial incentives are — and the Manitoba government deserves high praise for being a leader here — the province is not deserving of the Fraser Institute survey’s ranking as the second-best place to explore in Canada or as fourth in the world.

The Fraser Institute’s survey respondents lost some credibility on that one, as investors and exploration companies have voted with their feet, and are either not investing, or leaving the province to explore elsewhere.

The problem lies with the province’s history of not addressing their First Nation communities’ rights for consultation in a manner so that permitting for exploration is not held up due to First Nation’s objections to the whole process.

Attention is finally being directed here, but it is painfully slow.

The other issue is the Manitoba government’s obsession with setting aside vast areas of land where economic development is restricted, with no mining, forestry or hydroelectricity generation permitted.

All this, carried out in the name of saving the boreal forest, has withdrawn millions of hectares of land from exploration.

In Manitoba’s Far North there is no logging or farming, and tourism is not a viable alternative, but there is a drive to make a park out of most of it, including almost the entire coast of the province.

These proposed parks will not stop global warming. This is insanity, because nothing is threatening the environment here. This obsession of the Manitoba government is not just misguided, but in open disregard of the economic well-being of other stakeholders in the province, as well as the economic well-being of the province itself.

At every stage since this started in the 1990s, the government has lied to the minerals industry about its intentions. First it was for 12% protected areas. When they were given what they wanted, they re-engineered it so that even more land was sterilized — this time based on land morphology — then they re-engineered it again to take even more, using the excuse that they wanted to protect species. Many of these species were not even threatened.

When they ran out of excuses, they created parks by edict, with lame excuses like endangered flowers. If they had ever worked in the North, they would know those flowers are everywhere.

I am still not sure if this was just misleading, or total incompetence. But as explorationists in this province we feel misled, deceived and betrayed, as we see the livelihoods of future generations squashed.

Over 25% of northern Manitoba is restricted from exploration, and now the Manitoba government is pushing to make it 50%. To withdraw half of northern Manitoba from any development, including exploration and mining, is irresponsible.

Vast areas in the North are essentially unexplored, and to withdraw any of it from exploration without doing geological, geophysical and geochemical regional surveys is gross mismanagement of the future economic well-being of this province.

A buzzword these days is “global warming,” and that the land and species must be protected, in particular the boreal forest and the polar bears in the Far North.

Well, this is a farce: just 10,000 years ago, most of Canada was covered with a 2 km thick ice sheet.

Without global warming there would be no boreal forest. It was not the little camp fires of First Nations people that melted all that ice. It certainly took a lot more warmth than we have now to melt these continental glaciers. It has to do with the long-term variation of the orbit of the earth (i.e., Milankovitch cycles), and these are still continuing, and likely will, until all the ice caps are gone.

This is bad for the polar bears, unfortunately, but the good news is that there will be a larger boreal forest. Looking at reconstructed climatic records of glacial and interglacial periods, it appears that if mankind has done anything, it has merely forestalled the next onset of global freezing.

Without a doubt, humanity’s activities throughout the world have been responsible for pollution, destruction of habitat and overuse of renewable resources. But it remains to be seen if our part in global warming is significant.

Climate change has its warm spikes, but these are anomalies in a world generally colder through time that what we have now. Please note that although some suggest global freezing is near in geological time measured in centuries or millennia, the length of a warm cycle is not something that can be predicted with certainty — only that it will end.

What makes me really upset is that this push for protection is directed from outside Canada by people and nations who have screwed up their own environment and cut down all their forest, and now want to tell Canadians what to do with ours.

The PEW foundation and others out of the U.S. are funding this, and wanting to stop development in Canada’s North because they can’t do it at home.

I’ve even been told that we could end up like Ireland or Scotland, with few trees left.

Sorry, this is not the Middle Ages, and even if they think we are, the people of the North are not Stone Age people, and are smart enough to govern ourselves and protect what we have.

The Manitoba government is now calling for vast areas of Manitoba to be withdrawn from industrial development to protect the woodland caribou, which they themselves admit is one of the healthiest herds in Canada.

OK, logging maybe as industrial development, but why mining? Relative to logging, exploration and mining activity covers little area, and the impact of exploration is light on the environment, due to the exploration industry’s best practices guidelines and regulations, developed over decades by government and the industry.

Mining takes up less space in all of Manitoba than the parking lots of shopping malls in Winnipeg, and exploration less than the Winnipeg stadium.

Exploration should not be excluded in these parks, and if mineable deposits are discovered, mining should not be excluded. In our Far North we have amazing diamond potential, but the area is covered with a huge park.

Diamond mines, which occupy tiny areas, are pretty friendly to the environment. For example, the Snap Lake mine in the Northwest Territories covers less than 5 sq. km, while the right-of-way for the Bipole I & II transmission lines of Manitoba Hydro covers more than 250 sq. km. Looking at it in other ways, the Snap Lake mine is 8% bigger than the average Manitoba farm was in 2012, and would cover 0.07% of Caribou River Provincial Park in northeastern Manitoba.

Parks and First Nations

The creation of large parks, especially covering 50% of northern and eastern Manitoba, would be devastating to the economic opportunities for First Nations, communities and northerners in general.

The First Nations are having opportunities for a better life ripped away, as the government sets aside vast areas as parks, whose boundaries would become invisible prison walls that isolate them from the outside world forever.

I suppose Americans and city-dwelling environmentalists who promote these large withdrawals of land from economic development believe they are saving the North from devastation.

Those of us who actually work in the North love our fishing, our clean water and the beauty of the land, plants and animals — but we also love and need our jobs.

We want a vibrant economy in the North not only for us, but for our children and their children.

Proper management of the vast boreal forest can be done with good regulations and proper consultations with First Nations, so they too can benefit from revenue sharing of economic development in areas of their traditional lands.

When the glaciers melted they were the first people to populate Manitoba, moving ever northward as the glacier retreated. To put large parks in the area of First Nation communities, some with 80% unemployment, is to keep them forever as “have-nots” living in conditions akin to those in developing countries, without the benefits derived from developing resources in their own backyard.

It does not have to be that way. The creation in times past of small reserves not large enough to have sustainable economic viability in a modern era was tragic, and now for First Nations people to surrender the economic opportunities for the sake of unneeded parks is another tragedy imposed on them from outside.

The prosperity of the North, especially the Far North, where there are no large forests, hinges almost exclusively on exploration, mining and other natural resources.

First Nation people — who by the way have historically prospected, used and traded mineral resources like stone for tools and copper — have an opportunity to stake claims and acquire interest in the mineral wealth for themselves and their communities. Why should they ever lose this?

Why should all northerners lose these opportunities? A few part-time, low-paying seasonal jobs as guides, or jobs in tourism, are not going to sustain these fast-growing communities.

Canada leads the world in mining innovation, and the valuable and transferable skills and the prosperity that mines bring should be shared with all northerners.

First Nations have played a vital role in the North, and will likely play an even greater role going forward in the North’s development, as we all seek the benefits of economic development within the context of a sustainable environment.

It takes decades to evaluate what areas should be a park and what areas should be for economic development. These two can, and currently do, coexist, and should not be treated as though they cannot occur side by side.

The process should certainly not be rushed for political reasons, such as winning the green vote in a particular election.

Before large areas of Manitoba are withdrawn from economic development, there should be a plebiscite of the northern peoples and affected stakeholders, or at least those residing outside the perimeter highways of major cities like Winnipeg.

There is a high probability that as-yet undiscovered mining camps and the benefits of enormous wealth will be lost forever, if they are hastily covered by the huge parks being proposed in Manitoba.

We need to counter this insanity with rational multi-use of land. In the North, life-sustaining economic development depends on finding and developing mining deposits where they are found, because they are unique, they are where they are, and cannot be moved.

— Stephen Masson is president of the Manitoba-Saskatchewan Prospectors & Developers Association, and president and CEO of Copper Reef Mining. A version of this commentary appeared in the Northern Prospector magazine, the official publication of the Manitoba-Saskatchewan Prospectors & Developers Association. Visit www.northernprospector.ca.

 

 

 

 

 


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