Critical Minerals, In-Person Events, and Government Support Bring New Opportunities
The Mining Suppliers Trade Association (MSTA) Canada
The Mining Suppliers Trade Association (MSTA CANADA) is celebrating the return of in-person industry events and new government funding for mining activities. As the national voice for firms in Canada’s mining supply and services (MSS) sector, MSTA CANADA has attended several in-person industry gatherings around the world in recent months. The association held its own Annual Forum in Toronto—the first time the conference has been organized and hosted since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
It is quite a change from October 2021 when Resource in Focus last profiled MSTA CANADA, which is headquartered in Mississauga, Ontario. At that time, mining events were only being held online, if at all.
“People want to get back out there. The single biggest change for us is that we’re able to attend and host Canada pavilions at major mining trade shows around the world. That was put on the shelf during COVID,” states Managing Director Ryan McEachern.
Set up at major mining conferences, MSTA CANADA hosts Canada pavilions that feature the best of Canada’s mining suppliers—companies that can leverage the globally recognized Canada Brand. Over the past year, the association has hosted pavilions or participated in trade missions in the United States, Chile, Mexico, Colombia, South Africa, and recently two of the largest domestic mining events: CIM Convention, held in Vancouver and the PDAC Convention, held in Toronto.
In another bit of good news, the latest budget from the Canadian government provides billions of dollars for the mining sector. The announcement delighted MSTA CANADA, which is also excited by the possibilities presented by major trends in the mining industry around automation, electrification, green energy, and critical minerals.
The overall makeup and mission of MSTA CANADA remain the same: To connect companies to opportunities to grow their business. “Our members are basically suppliers or solution providers of products and services that span the whole life cycle of mining. That goes from discovery, development, operations, and refining right down to environmental reclamation,” says McEachern.
The association advocates for members, promotes the industry, educates the public about mining sector realities such as the importance of mining to the overall economy, and arranges networking opportunities. In-person events are an excellent vehicle for achieving all these ends, which is why McEachern is thrilled that MSTA CANADA hosted its own event on June 10th in Toronto.
“We call it our Annual Forum. With the lifting of restrictions on COVID, we decided not to host a virtual event. We felt in-person was the way to go with our event,” he says. “The theme is still relevant. We call it ‘A New Decade of Opportunities.’”
There were panels, discussions, and presentations by business leaders and mine company representatives about current and future projects. Speakers included Giles Norman, Canada’s Ambassador to Serbia, North Macedonia, and Montenegro, who will be giving opening remarks. Norman discussed various topics including conditions in Europe given the current war in Ukraine.
Other high-profile presenters included Stuart Bergman, the Deputy Chief Economist and Director of the Research and Analysis Department for Export Development Canada, and Kalev Ruberg, the Vice President of Future and Chief Innovation Officer for Teck Resources of Vancouver, British Columbia.
Perhaps equally important, the forum offers participants a chance to mix, mingle, and do some business. “That’s the intent of our event—to really have the [mining] eco-system come together and network,” says McEachern.
No doubt, critical minerals will be a hot topic of discussion. Simply put, these are “minerals that are critical to our economy,” he says. A critical minerals list compiled by Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) includes nickel, lithium, cobalt, copper, chromium, uranium, and tin. Some critical minerals are used in the production of solar panels and electric vehicle (EV) batteries.
The abundance of critical minerals in Canada, coupled with the growing popularity of renewable energy, presents “an economic development opportunity of a lifetime for our country that goes right across many different value chains and sectors,” he states.
Ottawa seems to agree; the most recent federal budget, announced this April, proposes $3.8 billion for an eight-year critical minerals strategy. Of this total, $80 million is earmarked for public exploration and geoscience programs dedicated to finding new critical mineral deposits. Infrastructure investments to improve access to new critical mineral projects will receive $1.5 billion while $144 million has been set aside for research and development. The budget also doubles the mineral exploration tax credit for some critical minerals such as copper, cobalt, and nickel.
While pleased with these plans, MSTA CANADA wants to “make sure what they said in the budget actually happens,” says McEachern. The association also wants to see a more streamlined permitting process specifically for mining critical minerals. It currently can take “ten to fifteen years,” from the moment minerals are discovered to the time a mine “actually goes into production,” he notes. “Getting the permitting process right is the key to unlocking our ability as a country to benefit from this one in a lifetime opportunity,” says McEachern.
MSTA CANADA’s advocacy efforts also focus on export issues—“making sure there are supports for our businesses to effectively export [products or services] abroad,” he continues.
The association is closely watching certain technological developments as well, such as the increased presence of electric and semi- and fully autonomous vehicles in mining operations. Some mines are already using or experimenting with driverless vehicles to transport materials.
“A mine is a lot more controlled environment than a city street,” which makes it a perfect test environment, says McEachern.
In an urban environment, there is too much uncertainty, creating a higher level of risk of harming someone or something. Removing operators from the machines removes people from the potential hazards in mining, making the work environment much safer.
For all that, electrification is “the big game-changer, where mining is focused on decarbonizing operations from the actual power source by using solar and wind power to the wheeled vehicles that have historically used diesel fuel,” states McEachern. “If not battery-electric, they’re looking at hydrogen vehicles and starting to test those. It’s a bit of a challenge, given the size of these haul trucks.”
Moving away from gas-powered mine vehicles offers environmental and health benefits as well. Electric mine vehicles do not emit exhaust fumes and greenhouse gases and the battery electric vehicles have less noise and vibration, lowering worker fatigue. Not only is mining supplying the critical minerals to decarbonize the world but mine vehicle electrification complements the sector’s embrace of critical minerals for ‘green’ products such as solar panels and EV batteries.
Another progressive trend is the growing acceptance of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives within the mining supply chain. ESG criteria gauge the behaviour of companies on environmental, socioeconomic, and transparency/anti-corruption issues.
“I think our industry was always ahead of the curve relative to other industries because of what we do and where we are in the frontiers of a lot of countries and even in remote regions of our own country,” says McEachern.
Recently, there has been a move to add the letter ‘I’ for inclusion in the ESG paradigm. Inclusion “is very specific to understanding the diversity discussion,” continues McEachern. “When we’re in remote regions of our own country or internationally, are we making sure the Indigenous communities near the projects are being properly engaged and participating in opportunities? That’s another piece of this whole puzzle.”
In summary, ESGI “is about being a responsible business, in our own country and abroad. It’s really important that we act in that fashion. We can’t afford to have bad actors out there when our brand is so important to us in Canada,” he adds.
Although the mining business is getting busy, not everything is positive in the industry, however. As McEachern has noted, when COVID arrived in March 2020, the mining industry was recognized as an essential service and did not have to close. Mining companies are already “safety-oriented,” he says, so adding new health and safety protocols “went fairly smooth, relatively speaking, and was less disruptive than within the service industry, which was very hard hit.”
While COVID infections seem to be on the decline, the pandemic “broke our supply chains globally. You can see that across every aspect of our lives, from trying to buy a car to going to hotels, to trying to get a taxi,” adds McEachern.
For all industries and not just mining, there have been huge delays in the delivery of components, materials, and equipment. “It’s a boom time, but it’s unfortunately been constrained because of the broken supply chain,” he notes.
He remains optimistic, however, and forecasts a positive future for both MSTA CANADA and the mining sector in general. “I see us growing our role as the national voice for the association in building bridges across the globe. We’re going to formalize a lot of our relationships across the world, to help our companies be able to open doors to opportunities. In five years, I see ourselves that much more vibrant and engaged in that arena,” states McEachern.
As for the overall mine and mining supply and services sector, he says the focus on critical minerals, automation, and electrification could have a huge, positive impact. McEachern returns to the importance of funding and support from the Canadian government.
“There’s this momentum right now in terms of adoption of electrification and autonomous products. The key is going to be how fast that adoption continues to happen in the next five years… The big thing for me is we’ve got this huge opportunity, and now we finally have a federal government with a budget that aligns with that opportunity. We’ve just got to work through our broken supply chains to leverage the benefits of it all,” he says.