Canada’s northern mining opportunity will test us – by Tyler Hamilton (Toronto Star – February 9, 2013)

The Toronto Star has the largest circulation in Canada. The paper has an enormous impact on federal and Ontario politics as well as shaping public opinion.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

Mining in Canada’s north is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 7.5 per cent. The challenge is to develop those riches without sacrificing the environment

These days, the “North” is talked about more as a bank account full of easy money than as a beautiful and biologically diverse part of Canadian geography that should be cherished and protected. The challenge is to make it both.

No question, the riches are there. A recent report from the Conference Board of Canada touts how mining in the North is expected to nearly double by 2020, both in terms of the value of minerals and metals we retrieve and the number of jobs created.

Mining in the North is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 7.5 per cent, compared to an average of just 2.2 per cent annually for the Canadian economy as a whole.

But Scott Vaughan, federal commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, is worried about what will be sacrificed in the rush to make withdrawals. Environmental oversight is sorely lacking, he concluded in a report tabled this week to Parliament. There are also big information and infrastructure gaps.

“We know that there’s a boom in natural resources,” he said. “I think what we need now, given the gaps, given the problems we found, is a boom in environmental protection.” In the North, real mining gross domestic product (2002 dollars) was $4.4 billion in 2011, and is expected to grow to $8.5 billion by 2020, according to the conference board.

It’s an impressive figure, but like all values attached to GDP, it’s also misleading. It accounts only for the one-way flow of minerals out of the ground and into marketplace. It ignores any of the health or environmental costs incurred over the next seven years, or the long-term economic implications of emptying yet another resource-filled bank account.

As Natural Capitalism author Paul Hawken said during a speech this week in Toronto, “Our current economic system steals from the future, sells it in the present, and calls it GDP.”

Many of Canada’s major mining companies are, to be fair, making an effort to reduce their environmental footprints.

They’ve seen the writing on the wall for more than a decade. With social media acting as a kind of global watchdog, ducking responsibility is becoming riskier business.

Organizations and programs have sprouted up to support efforts, including the Mining Association of Canada’s Toward Sustainable Mining initiative, which established principles for environmental performance, and the Green Mining Initiative, which has a similar mandate but is led by Natural Resources Canada.

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