Trudeau’s Yukon plan: Funding another road to nowhere

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Whitehorse, Yukon over the weekend. Photo: Office of Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada


The past few years have been good for the Canadian road-building industry in the Arctic. In 2011, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper approved a $300 million, 75-mile long highway between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk. “Tuk,” as locals refer to it, sits on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Once the highway opens later this year, it will be the first public road in North Amer ica to the reach the water at the top of the world.

Harper was a Conservative politician who tried to resurrect a strategy of muscular Arctic sovereignty in the Canadian North. His philosophy towards demonstrating Arctic strength was one of “use it or lose it”, manifested in big-ticket projects like the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway and the Canadian High Arctic Research Station, also opening later this year. In this way, he resembled an earlier postwar predecessor, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. That leader, of a different conservative ilk, sought to build “roads to resources” across Canada’s North, too, where he saw the nation’s destiny lying.

After Harper’s fall from favor came Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: young, Liberal (with a capital L), and, based on appearances, a world apart from the rigid Stephen Harper. Where Harper staunchly supported the oil industry and cracked down on climate scientists, Trudeau views himself as an environmentalist, and Canada as a leader in sustainability.

Yet over the weekend, Trudeau took a page out of Harper’s playbook by cozying up to mining interests. The only difference was that he dressed his decision in the language of community development and putting indigenous peoples first. During his first official trip to the Yukon a few days ago, the Liberal Prime Minister announced over CAN $360 million in funding to road improvement projects in the territory. Road access will be enhanced in two areas rich in mining potential: the Dawson Range in central Yukon and the Nahanni Range Road in southeastern Yukon. On paper, these two projects satisfy the government’s aim to build “strategic and trade-enabling infrastructure” across Canada. The federal government will contribute two-thirds of the funding (CAN $274.4 million), while the Yukon territorial government will kick in one-third (CAN $112.8 million).

The roads are being promoted under the Yukon Resource Gateway Project (YRGP), which is all about turning the territory into a world-class mining province. The territorial government’s submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance said that YRGP “holds very little risk and great economic potential.” This statement, however, flies in the face of the Yukon’s severe downturn in recent years, largely due to a mining crunch. In 2015, the territory’s real GDP contracted by 6 percent – the largest of any province or territory in Canada. It has been forecast to shrink another 7.7% this year, again the “bleakest” outlook in Canada.

The Yukon government has spun this downturn on its head, claiming that the current lows in commodity cycles actually offer a good opportunity to sink more money into mining infrastructure. But if anything, one would think this would be an ideal time to diversify away from mining, which accounted for 10% of GDP in 2015. Instead, the government has chosen to sink money into the Nahanni Range Road, which terminates at the Cantung tungsten mine, closed since 2015 (see the route on Google Maps). The head office of the mine’s operator, North American Tungsten, has also been shuttered since 2015. It entered into court-ordered protection after declaring that it could not pay back the $79 million it owed to more than 200 companies and after laying off dozens of employees. Unsurprisingly, government inspectors recently found that the bankrupt, abandoned mine is illegally leaking discharge into surrounding waters and lacks proper erosion controls.

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The Nahanni Range Road after a washout in summer 2012. Photo: Yukon Department of Highways and Public Works.


Given that an abandoned and leaking mine lies at the end of a road that the federal and territorial governments are spending millions to improve, it seems absurd for Trudeau to claim that the road investments will be “an investment in Yukon’s people.” Nobody lives along the road or in the abandoned mining town of Cantung at the end of it, although fishing for Arctic grayling in the area is supposed to be good. The territorial government, too, has claimed that the Yukon Resource Gateway Project will lead to “economic growth and employment opportunities in Yukon First Nations and communities.” But when the mining operators based in distant cities like Vancouver find it all too easy to abandon ship when the going gets tough, they leave a wake of environmental and economic destruction in their trail that hurts local communities most. North American Tungsten isn’t even the only Yukon mining operator to have gone bankrupt in 2015. Yukon Zinc Mine, whose parent company is Chinese-owned, closed the Wolverine Mine that year, too, leaving many local companies high and dry. At a tense meeting in Yellowknife in 2015, creditors called the company’s actions ” “shameful, absolutely shameful.” Yukon Zinc owes one local trucking company, Sidhu Trucking, over half a million dollars.

Mining companies certainly do create jobs when times are good, and they can also help fatten the pocketbooks of locals who aren’t directly employed in digging out the gold, lead, and tungsten. But when mining companies simply declare bankruptcy and leave a wake of environmental destruction and meaningless IOUs to hard-working local companies, the government should think twice about giving them what is essentially a handout in the form of taxpayer-funded road improvements.

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Explosions in the Arctic: Mining gravel in Alaska

It’s the Fourth of July in the United States of America, which means fireworks and explosions galore. That means the time is ripe to discuss explosions in the Arctic, from dynamite detonations in Alaska to crater eruptions in Siberia. Today I’ll start, fittingly, in the American Arctic.

Dynamite explosions in Alaska

When people think of Arctic resources, they usually think of oil, gas, or minerals like gold and silver. But in general, those are more lucrative for export rather than for use by the Arctic’s four million residents. For people living in urban settings in the Arctic, gravel is a hugely valuable commodity. It’s used in almost every aspect of construction on permafrost, since a gravel pad needs to be laid down before a building can be put on top of the shifting terrain. Gravel is used for constructing roads, driveways, and runways, too. And the oil industry needs gravel in the Arctic in order to build artificial islands and drill pads.

Gravel, however, is scarce in much of the North American Arctic, and it’s availability can often be a deciding factor for many things. Trucking in gravel from the south is massively expensive, and when a town lacks any roads to the outside world, it’s all but impossible. Earlier this year, I heard a representative from Olgoonik Corporation, based in Wainwright, Alaska, state, “What’s the first stage to starting economic development in Wainwright or anywhere on the North Slope? It’s getting the gravel that you need. That creates the platform. How are you going to do that?”

Back in the 1950s, the Canadian government, when it was choosing a site for its administrative center in the Western Arctic, decided on Inuvik in part because of the ample availability of gravel along the shores of the Mackenzie River. When the Inuvialuit, the indigenous people residing around Inuvik and the Mackenzie Delta, were negotiating their land claims agreement with the Canadian government, they made sure to include access and rights to gravel. The Inuvialuit Settlement Region has a Granular Resources Management Plan, and “How do I access my personal gravel allotment?” is even a frequently asked question on the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation’s website. This likely stems from the fact that every Inuvialuit beneficiary is allowed “up to 32m³ of borrow material (i.e. sand and gravel).”

Across the border in Alaska, gravel is just as important and gets scarcer as you move west. When I traveled to Utqiaġvik (formerly Barrow), the northernmost community in the United States, last March for the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation’s (UIC) Indigenous Business Development Tour, I had the opportunity to witness a rare explosion of dynamite in a gravel pit. Like the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, UIC closely manages its gravel resources, which it does through a subsidiary, UIC Sand & Gravel, LLC. During the business tour, a UIC representative explained, “Nothing in Barrow happens without a gravel source – they are the backbone and the heart of the community for any future development. They are a critical component to our future success.”

After learning about the importance of gravel to Alaskan Arctic communities, we piled into a tour bus and went out to the mine site. Some of us stood out on the road for a good 15 minutes as the countdown proceeded. The temperature was in the negative 20s, and probably closer to -40 with the wind chill. People were pretty darn ready for the mine to blow. It felt like an eternity to us, but UIC had been waiting much, much longer – over a year, in fact, to obtain the permits. In the still air, someone cracked a joke about the Arctic lemmings that would be saying goodbye today. The clock approached 0, and then the mine blew.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an explosion on this scale before, even though we were a mile away. In a loud puff, the sooty mushroom cloud expanded and dissipated quickly over the cloudless tundra.

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Crazily enough, UIC let us explore the gravel pit after employees checked for any unexploded ordinance. There were about 20 of us in safety vests clamoring up the rocks in a surreal black and white landscape.

There’s a Scottish photographer, Robert Ormerod. He’s interesting in finding out what happened to people who wanted to be astronauts when they were children. What did they end up doing when they grew up, he wonders?

As one of those people with space dreams as a kid, this was pretty much the closest I’ve ever come to walking on the moon.

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The bits of rocks would be sorted, crushed, and turned into gravel for use in the town of Utqiaġvik. Next time you see a driveway in the North American Arctic, think of all the work that went into obtaining the fine little pebbles that, down south, seem pretty much expendable. As one UIC representative explained, “That’s 1.5 years of permitting that went up in a few seconds. We got the permit last Thursday and were blowing stuff up yesterday. It was a quick turnaround, and it’s exciting that we got to see it.” In a few days, the area would become “no blast” – I think because that’s when mating season starts for those pesky but adorable lemmings.

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A collared lemming.

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Check out that fine gravel blast.

Greenland pioneers Arctic tourism – and mining

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The Russell Glacier outside Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. Photo: Mia Bennett, August 2014.

The world’s largest island has risen to the lofty ranks of Lonely Planet’s Top 10 countries to visit in 2016. This past October, the travel guidebook publisher included Greenland on its top 10 list with traditional tourist magnet countries like the USA, Japan, and Australia, along with a couple of tropical archipelagos: Palau and Fiji.

Anders Stenbakken, CEO of Visit Greenland, a tourism company wholly owned by the Government of Greenland, expressed, “It is a great honor to be a part of the travel magazine and to be selected as one of the World’s Best Destinations 2016. The increased focus on Greenland as a unique travel destination is due to the fact that more and more travel agencies have included Greenland in their travel programs. New products are continuously developed and several air routes have opened, still with more to come. With a combination of improved marketing as well as higher accessibility of the country, Greenland is now a destination where travelers can make their dreams come true.”

I communicated over email with Kirstine Dinesen, marketing coordinator at AW Media, an online communication agency collaborating with Visit Greenland about the country’s inclusion in this list. She noted, “For many years Greenland has been neglected by world travelers as the country often is associated with nothing but ice and snow. But the Arctic country has much more to offer. The world just has to recognize this. Hopefully the inclusion of Greenland makes the world see the unique adventures the country holds.”

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The author walking in central-western Greenland. Photo: Lincoln Pitcher.

Dinesen extolled Greenland’s impressive nature as one of the reasons for the country’s inclusion on Lonely Planet’s list. “Greenland holds a large variety of Arctic adventures,” she wrote. “Most tourism activities are active as the nature and the landscape are a huge part of the beautiful world of Greenland. More specifically, what sets Greenland out from other destinations is The Big Arctic Five including Dog Sledding, Whale Watching, Meeting Pioneers, Exploring Ice and Snow and the Northern Lights. These five Arctic attractions are considered as the core of the Greenland adventure.” Greenland’s reputation for having pristine and untainted landscapes, however, could one day be blighted in a way similar to how Canada, once a global environmental paragon, has fallen from grace with the growth of Alberta’s oil sands industry.

 

Mining – a new core of the Greenland adventure?

The potential rise of the mining industry in Greenland could jeopardize the “pioneer” communities and the dramatic and unindustrialized landscapes that form the “core of the Greenland adventure.” Greenland’s inclusion in Lonely Planet’s list comes at a time when the country is still known for its glaciers, whales, and dogsleds. But soon enough, it could also be known for mining and extraction, just like Western Australia or Minas Gerais, Brazil. 

In Greenland, extraction of metals and gemstones is not entirely new. Previous efforts to mine copper, graphite, and cryolite met with varying degrees of success and failure. No industrial mining has taken place in the country since the 1990s, when the Black Angel lead-zinc-silver mine closed. Symbolizing the heady times of the mid-2000s, when commodity prices were high and the global financial crisis hadn’t yet hit, a UK-based company considered re-opening Black Angel, which still has about 10-20 years of production left in the ground. The company, however, went under in 2013, and the minerals still sit waiting for the right investor at the right time.

Fast forward to 2015, and Greenland’s mining business looks like it may be gathering momentum again. This is in part due to the Greenlandic Parliament’s hotly contested overturn of a 25-year ban on uranium mining two years ago. Greenland’s two major political parties, Siumut and Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA), both support the development of the minign industry, but Siumut (which currently leads the majority coalition) opposes uranium mining while IA favors it. Many in Greenland believe that mining, if it were profitable and sustainable, could pave a path towards full sovereignty from Denmark by eliminating the need for the annual 3.5 billion DKK block grant from Copenhagen (~USD $500 million). However, with a 2014 report by the Universities of Greenland and Copenhagen stressing that mining will not be enough to fuel Greenland’s economy, the government has been trying to develop other sectors like tourism (and bottled water), too.

Signaling mining’s recent headway in Greenland, Canadian mining company True North Gems announced that it has received approval to begin extracting ore and waste rock at the Aappaluttoq Ruby and Pink Sapphire deposit in southwest Greenland. Their website states, “Pure and pristine, emerging from the frozen landscape of Greenland are stunning red gems. Produced in collaboration with the local community and with steadfast devotion to the environment, we pride ourselves on what will become the first Arctic ruby mine brought into commercialization.”

It’s almost the same type of language that one might expect to read in a Lonely Planet guide book to the world’s mines.

Also in southern Greenland, Australian-owned Greenland Minerals and Energy (GME) is planing to start a mining license application process for its Kvanefjeld rare earths-uranium project in the first quarter of 2016. GME, as Jichang Lulu reports, has a non-binding agreement with a listed arm of China Nonferrous, a state-owned Chinese mining company. The Kvanefjeld project could thus possibly supply a new rare earth elements separation plant that another subsidiary of China Nonferrous will open next year in southern China.

Early next year, GME will release the outcomes of its feasibilitysStudy. The president of an environmental non-profit, Avataq, however, isn’t holding his breath. Mikkel Myrup remarked to the Greenlandic Broadcasting Corporation, “There are studies that show that the environment, animals, and people around an open-pit mine are affected. So it is no use to say that we need to wait for an Environmental Impact Assessment to have an opinion on this.”

If rare earth mining goes ahead, Greenland will join another select list of countries: those that produce these metals needed for automobiles, precision-guided missiles, smart phones, and wind turbines. The 2014 list of top producers includes, in order: China (by far the heavyweight producer), the U.S., India, Australia, Russia,Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

No northern limits

If rare earth mining in southern Greenland sounds extreme, consider the Citronen Zinc-Lead Project at the northernmost tip of Greenland. The owner, Ironbark Zinc Limited, describes the location as “on the doorstep of Europe and North America” without a hint of irony (though I suppose if they are referring to Svalbard and Ellesmere Island, they might be right). The site holds an estimated 13 billion pounds of zinc, or 2.4 trillion pennies. While zinc prices have been low in recent years, a decrease of global stockpiles means that investors believe the price may soon start to recover – possibly to the point where it makes economic sense to construct what would be not only the world’s northernmost mine, but also the world’s northernmost settlement. The feasibility study is an incredible read, for it is both amazing and scary that humans are already thinking about building common rooms that “will include a small kitchen area with coffee machines and dishwasher, a relaxing area with sofas and armchairs and an area for dining” at 83°N. IKEA should be issuing a special edition catalog of furnishings for Arctic mines any day now.

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Try to imagine an open pit mine at the top of Greenland. Along with a “small kitchen area with coffee machines and dishwasher.”

Can mining and tourism coincide?

Visit Greenland doesn’t include mining in its list of activities, but it’s possible to imagine a future in which mining and tourism are combined and both spun as “pioneering activities.”

However, a disaster at the Kennecott Utah Copper Mine in 2013 exemplifies the risks associated with this. The mine, which is right outside Salt Lake City and just so happens to be the biggest pit in the world, used to have a visitor’s center, but it was closed as the ground beneath became increasingly unstable – and fortunately before a massive landslide occurred in 2013, costing Rio Tinto an estimated $1 billion to clean up. This disaster pales in comparison with the bursting of BHP Billiton’s two tailings dams in Minas Gerais, Brazil last month, killing at least 17 people and submerging entire towns in toxic mud.

Now, to see Utah’s Kennecott open pit mine, tourists can visit a nearby 9,000-foot mountaintop to gaze down on the deep scar in the earth – excitedly described as “so large that it’s visible to astronauts in the space shuttle – almost a mile deep and nearly three miles wide!”

Maybe one day, astronauts will look down and see a massive hole carved into the icy northern tip of Greenland, illuminated by the northern lights.

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