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Searching for ore beneath all that ice, sea and tundra

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Not content with just the tip of the iceberg, Canada's ruling Conservative Party has made a Canadian $100-million ($94-million) commitment to map mineral and energy resources in the rich but largely untapped Arctic region and reassert its sovereignty in the process.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper revealed the five-year initiative—which comes on top of C$109 million ($102 million) already earmarked for mapping by both his government and the previous Liberal regime—in late August, just before calling an election that sent Canadians to the polls Oct. 14.

Citing existing finds of natural gas, oil, gold and diamonds, Harper said the north holds "countless other precious resources buried under the ice, sea and tundra."

The move was welcomed by the Canadian mining industry, which has long encouraged the government to enhance its geoscience mapping program in an area that has been left mostly unexplored due to the innumerable environmental challenges.

The funding will give scientists the opportunity to map the vast acreage of bedrock through field tests, conduct surveys via specialized aircraft and through satellite imagery. The studies will provide information about the seismic, magnetic and gravimetric makeup of the region to identify geological occurrences that might be telltale signs of ore deposit formations. It'll be up to the private sector to take it from there, conducting more advanced exploration studies.

A study undertaken by R.B. Boulton & Associates on behalf of Natural Resources Canada found that every C$1 million in government investment expanding the geoscience knowledge base would likely stimulate C$5 million in private-sector exploration. That, in turn, could lead to the discovery of new resources worth C$125 million, based on metals values when the study was done in 1999.

But Canada faces quite a challenge as it attempts to balance sovereignty and commerce issues against significant environmental concerns.

Canada is in a situation where, as Harper said, it has to "use it or lose it" in terms of Arctic resources. Global warming is melting the polar ice cap, opening shipping lanes and allowing access to huge tracts of unexplored territory—not just to Canada, but to other polar nations. Canada is competing against the United States, Russia and Denmark (which has authority over Greenland) in front of a United Nations commission to extend underwater boundaries.

Russia has been particularly aggressive, dropping a capsule containing its national flag in the middle of the ocean floor in August last year. While some feel that the move was more symbolic than anything else, it clearly demonstrated Russia's intent to get as big a piece of the pie as possible, and its recent aggression against Georgia has renewed those concerns.

The bulked-up financial resources to explore the Arctic is just one part of the government's aim to reassert sovereignty in the region. Other measures include heightening Canada's military presence, expanding its use of military icebreakers and installing a remote sensing network.

However, the geoscience mapping program causes great concern to environmentalists, who worry about the impact that mining and drilling activity could have on the local ecosystem. The leader of Canada's Liberal Party, Stéphane Dion, criticized the Harper initiative as unduly putting economic development above the environment. "We need to protect the Arctic for the world. Anything we will do there should be very careful about this very fragile environment," he said.

According to government figures, the three territories that comprise Canada's northern reaches produced minerals—mostly gold and tungsten—worth a combined C$129 million in 2007, excluding diamonds. That's undoubtedly just a drop in the bucket compared with the region's true potential.

Although the rapidly expanding diamond mining industry has been the king of the hill in recent years—yielding 17 million carats worth up to C$2 billion in 2007, establishing Canada as the world's third-largest producer—there's a long history of gold, zinc, lead and silver mining in the Arctic.

Base metal mines are now virtually non-existent, but it hasn't always been that way. The Polaris Mine in Nunavut, the Pine Point Mine in the Northwest Territories and the Faro Mine in the Yukon were all significant producers of lead and zinc before they were shut years ago.

Such projects face an extra challenge. Gold and diamonds can be easily flown out to end markets, but base metals would require railroads or other heavy bulk commodity transport. If recent actions are any indication, the government might be willing to support some of the financing that would be required for new infrastructure.

Extending Canada's mineral inventory to the far north might very well turn out to be what keeps the Canadian mining industry—not to mention the broader economy—thriving for decades to come. DARCY KEITH


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