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
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
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