Photo by Whitehorse Star
Premier Ranj Pillai
Photo by Whitehorse Star
Premier Ranj Pillai
Premier Ranj Pillai is off in Europe this week attending mining conferences to try to drum up investment and find new partners for critical mineral projects in the Yukon.
He spoke about the effort to reporters on Tuesday by videoconference from the United Kingdom.
“We know mineral exploration and development remain very significant in the Yukon’s economic success, and the growing demand for critical minerals will continue to drive interest to the North and increase our investment attractiveness,” he said.
Pillai is trying to attract large companies and investors with the expertise to get exploration done, and with the financial stability to ensure things like security bonds can be covered.
During the trip, Pillai said, he met with representatives of the large multinational mining giant Rio Tinto about Yukon projects.
On Tuesday, Rio Tinto announced a $6-million added investment into the Casino mining project near Carmacks.
This Western Copper-owned project is going through the environmental review process, though it is likely still years away from producing ore.
The Yukon government is also making infrastructure investments to maintain the territory’s appeal to companies like Rio Tinto.
It’s in the process of forking over as much as $44 million to build a new ore dock in Skagway, Alaska so mines such as Casino and Minto — should a buyer be found for the abandoned Minto Mine — have a viable ocean port to use for shipping ore.
Casino is potentially one of the largest copper deposits in the world, and would also produce gold, silver and molybdenum.
Much of Pillai’s comments on Tuesday focused on critical minerals, but gold mining continues to dominate the Yukon mining industry, with the price of gold hovering above $2,600 per ounce.
Pillai acknowledged that many of his meetings in Germany were about gold mining.
“We’ve continued to see really exciting gold mining projects,” he said. “$2,000 gold drives that interest.”
Pillai said the gold mining industry is an important part of the Yukon economy, and helps insulate the territory during periods of economic turmoil, such as the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have this natural insurance policy that has popped up whenever there’s instability in the world,” Pillai said.
He expects market forces to eventually drive a pivot to more widespread critical mineral exploration, however.
He highlighted the money being invested by Fireweed Metals in exploring what he said is one of the top 10 tungsten deposits in the world.
Tungsten is used in military applications, so this kind of project has geopolitical implications, Pillai said.
“We are seeing control by countries like China; immense control over the majority of these commodities,” he said.
Tungsten is a prime example.
“The tungsten sector is primarily controlled by China and Russia,” he said.
Mines such as Fireweed ensure access to tungsten for the U.S. and Canada.
He is touting the Yukon as an environmentally friendly and stable place for Canada and its allies to mine for critical minerals.
“We want to make sure it’s in the hands of friendly nations,” he said of critical minerals generally.
Beyond just military needs, Pillai said these types of minerals are important for green energy and tech.
“Whether it’s for a green transition, whether it’s for solar panels, or it’s for wind turbines, or it’s going to be used in battery technology, or it’s going to be used in circuit boards, or it’s going to be used in a digital revolution that we continue to go through — all of these commodities are extremely important,” Pillai said.
Increased mining activity in the territory, whether it is for gold or for critical minerals, impacts the Yukon’s environment and its people in varied ways.
Pillai acknowledged some of these issues.
The tight housing market is one area that makes it hard for companies to bring lots of workers in from the outside.
“We know that housing has been a challenge,” Pillai said. “So, it’s not like we’re not going to bring in a tremendous amount of new folks, because that’ll put more pressure on housing.”
The degree to which First Nations are involved in and approve of new projects can be another major sticking point,
The government is currently fighting a court decision stemming from a lawsuit brought by the First Nation of Na-cho Nyäk Dun that effectively kiboshed a quartz-mining project near Mayo.
Pillai doesn’t see that as emblematic of the relationship the government has with most First Nations.
“There’s so much good that’s going on, and there’ll be some challenges, but that one challenge…doesn’t define this relationship,” he said.
The government is working on new minerals legislation that could fundamentally alter how mining is managed in the territory and how First Nations are involved.
This is something First Nations’ leaders have long pushed for.
Old rules from the Gold Rush era are still in place to this day, such as those covering the amount of royalties First Nations get paid from placer mining operations.
Those royalties are still based on a gold price of $15 per ounce — paying out only 35 cents per ounce — despite the price of gold sitting above $2,600 per ounce.
“(First Nations) want to see the modernization of legislation done as quickly as possible,” Pillai said.
“We’ve heard that, and we’ve committed to working with them at the speed and pace that they want to work at.”
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