Blog Entry

From Mines to Electric Vehicles: Three conditions to ensure electrification isn’t a mining disaster

Jamie Kneen

National Program Co-Lead

Open letter (October 22, 2020)

This letter is available on Équiterre | Fondation David Suzuki | Fondation Rivières | MiningWatch | Nature Québec | Québec meilleure mine | SNAP Québec

As Ottawa and Quebec develop multi-billion dollar recovery plans that aim, in particular, to expand extractive mining to feed the growth in electric batteries, we call on our governments to implement needed reforms to ensure this does not undermine the sustainability of transportation. To enable a green and just economic recovery, governments must prioritize strategies that will reduce both greenhouse gases (GHGs) and the environmental footprint of natural resource use.

In Quebec, one finding from The State of Energy report is clear: to tackle the climate emergency, we must electrify most, if not all, of the transportation sector. It is the province’s greatest source of GHGs (43%). The electrification of vehicles combined with a growing vehicle fleet will, however, bring a significant increase in the use of natural resources.

1. Reduce personal automobile use

Electric or not, the average personal vehicle contains the equivalent of 10,000 cell phones in minerals and materials. Add to that all the materials needed to build and maintain the network of roads and highways. A recent scientific study found that vehicles are also a major source of microplastics in the environment.

With nearly 5.5 million vehicles in Quebec, and 41% of them being larger vehicles (pickups, SUVs, etc.), the vehicle fleet is growing much more quickly than population growth. Clearly that is unsustainable.

And contrary to what one might believe, the pandemic has not helped to slow this trend.

As a priority, Canada and Quebec must not only invest in recycling and the circular economy of metals and minerals used in transportation, but also tackle the unsustainable growth in the number of vehicles on our roads. That is what the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) urged all G7 countries to do in a recent report: reduce the global environmental footprint of their vehicle fleets.

In Quebec, several organizations who work on sustainable mobility are making similar demands for the province. Those organizations include l’Alliance TransitÉquiterre, le G15+Trajectoire Québec et Vivre en Ville.

Governments must accelerate the implementation of the solutions that are already well understood. Those include dramatically limiting urban sprawl, increasing the use of public transit and active transportation, strengthening regulations that limit car company advertisements, and most importantly putting into place strong fiscal measures such as a vehicle “feebate” system to discourage the use of private and fuel-inefficient vehicles while encouraging low-carbon, low-material transportation alternatives.

2. Develop an environmental framework for mining

A green recovery must also include reforms to the mining sector, the first link in the supply chain for batteries and electric vehicles. We cannot claim that personal transportation is a green sector if one of the links in that chain is missing.

The most recent data show that extractive mining generates astonishing amounts of solid waste in Quebec – mining waste that has increased by 300% in the last 15 years. Currently, the mining sector is by far the greatest source of solid waste in Quebec, every year producing more than 20 times the amount of residential waste being sent to landfills.

In 2017, Environment and Climate Change Canada revealed that 76% of Canadian metal mines were having negative impacts on water and aquatic ecosystems. In 2019, the Commissioner for the Environment and Sustainable Development’s report deplored the major gaps in the application of environmental laws governing mining pollution.

While the estimated costs of cleaning up abandoned mine sites in Quebec already surpasses $1.2 billion, several proposed mining projects are creating major, additional concerns. For example, the Champion Iron and Rose Lithium mines are both proposing to essentially sacrifice lakes by dumping mine waste into them. Sayona Mining Lithium is proposing a mine in close proximity to a pristine, natural source of water (the same one used for Eska water). Meanwhile, Nouveau Monde Graphite and Canada Carbon are proposing an open pit mine in the heart of an ecotourism area highly valued by outdoor recreationists. Finally, North American Lithium and Tata Steel have both had spills of contaminated effluent from their mines without facing any legal sanctions.

Quebec should strive to become a model for mining by closing loopholes in existing laws, notably by ensuring that all newly proposed mines undergo an environmental assessment through the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (or BAPE). Quebec must also strengthen environment Directive 019 by turning it into a binding regulation that has the force of law. The polluter pays principle must also guide government action on industrial mining.

3. Improve the social licence of mining and industrial mining laws

Quebec continues to operate under the archaic Mining Act, which still relies heavily on the “free entry” principle for proposed mines. Anyone can stake a mining claim in the province with one click of the mouse and a fee that totals under $35. This colonial approach, dating back to the 1800s, undercuts the social licence of mines and respect for local residents. It is also contrary to integrated land management and the protection of sensitive ecosystems.

Of the 37 local governments who have, since 2016, requested that their municipalities be considered territories incompatible with mining activity, barely 30% have succeeded due to opposition from the Quebec government and the lack of stringency in the law.

For example, the regional municipality of Coaticook was unable to protect Mont Sutton and Mont Hereford, both valued for their ecological and cultural value related to outdoor recreation. The regional municipality of Rocher-Percé was only able to protect 6.1% of its territory. The regional municipality of Papineau, nicknamed the Land of Green Gold, was powerless to protect its lakes despite their ecotourism value. In 2019, Grenville-sur-la-Rouge was hit with a $96 million lawsuit from a mining company challenging the small municipality’s right to protect its territory.

Quebec must follow through on its promise to reform the outdated Mining Act so that it is subservient to the Act Respecting Land Use Planning and Development and not the other way around. Additionally, Quebec must expand the applicable criteria for Territories incompatible with mining activity in order to respect local citizens and Indigenous rights. Given the financial woes faced by several mining projects over the last few years, Quebec must also revisit its criteria for responsible investment to avoid more public resources being wasted on mining projects with poor social, environmental, and economic plans.

In short, the environmental credibility of the growing fleet of batteries and electric cars depends on significant changes to industrial mining. It is quite simply not acceptable to avoid taking action on needed reforms while pointing the finger at China and other countries with poor environmental records, a strategy often used by the mining industry here. That race-to-the-bottom logic will drive Quebec right into the ground.

Signatories (in alphabetical order): Tom Arnold, mayor of Grenville-sur-la-Rouge; Denis Bolduc, secretary general at FTQ; Patrick Bonin, climate-energy campaign manager at Greenpeace; Alain Branchaud, executive director at Société de la nature et les parcs (SNAP-Québec); Gilles Cartier, Association pour la protection du Lac Taureau; Diego Creimer, interim Quebec director at the David Suzuki Foundation; Christian Daigle, general president at Syndicat de la fonction publique et parapublique du Québec (SFPQ); Sarah V. Doyon, executive director at Trajectoire Québec; Normand Éthier, spokesperson at SOS Grenville-sur-la-Rouge; Thérèse Guay, CDHAL;  Henri Jacob, Action Boréale; Dmitri Kharitidi, COPH; Félix-Antoine Lafleur, chair of the board at Conseil central de l'Abitibi-Témiscamingue-Nord-du-Québec (CCATNQ-CSN); Pierre Langlois (Ph.D), consultant on sustainable mobility and the electrification of transportation; Ugo Lapointe, co-spokesperson at Coalition Québec meilleure mine and coordinator at MiningWatch Canada; Benoit Lauzon, councillor of the Council Regional Municipality of Papineau; Marc Nantel, Regroupement Vigilance Mines  Abitibi et Témiscamingue (REVIMAT); Isabel Orellana, director of the Centre de recherche en éducation et formation à l'environnement et à l'écocitoyenneté at the Université du Québec à Montréal; Rébecca Pétrin, director of Eau Secours; Michel Picard, honorary professor at the Université de Montréal and representative of the Association de Loisirs, Chasse et Pêche Opwaiak; Éric Pineault, professor at the Institut des sciences de l’environnement at the Université du Québec à Montréal; Alain Saladzius, chair of the board at Fondation Rivières; Alice-Anne Simard, general director at Nature Québec; Louis St-Hilaire, Regroupement pour la protection des lacs de la Petite Nation; Colleen Thorpe, executive director at Équiterre; Rodrigue Turgeon, co-spokesperson at Comité citoyen de protection de l’esker.