Province gets a new deal
What a difference an election can make. By bringing the Liberals to power in British Columbia in 2001, after 11 years of NDP rule, it was clear that voters wanted change. The provincial government has come through, with strong encouragement to industry in general, and mining in particular. Exploration spending in the province doubled from 2002 to 2003 ($55 million), and doubled again in 2004 ($130 million). Industry analysts tell government that exploration is expected to hit almost $200 million in 2005 – that’s more than quadrupled since 2001.
In the late 1980s, northwest BC had been one of the hottest exploration plays in North America, with $150 million spent each year on mineral exploration just in that region. Around the world, exploration took a dive in the next decade, but B.C. had a steeper decline and slower recovery than most other places due to a few factors–insecurity of land access, a slow approval process, and particularly the decision not to approve the Windy Craggy development. The province only started to recover in late 2003, according to chief geologist Dave Lefebure with the Geological Survey Branch of the B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources.
The Mining & Minerals Division’s senior regional geologist Tom Schroeter shows just how dramatic that turnaround has been. In a March 2005 interview he said, “One year ago there were three projects at the environmental assessment stage [in the province]; now there are 13 at that stage. We think five will proceed to production this year.”
The turnaround has been a very major process, starting in the late 1990s. For the first time, the whole province was surveyed for mineral potential for both metals and industrial minerals by the Geological Survey Branch. Input from staff, industry experts and local experience were crunched through sophisticated software. The result was an updated geology and a new database, used in forming a new Land Use Plan.
A mining task force of 15 members of the Legislative Assembly spent three months in 2003 meeting extensively with government officials, industry, First Nations and communities to find out what it would take to get the province back on track. Their efforts resulted in the release in early 2005 of the Mining Plan, a document that will guide mining policy in the province for the next decade. The plan sets out 57 actions, each with a target date, grouped into four “cornerstones”:
* focus on communities and First Nations
* protecting workers and the environment
* global competitiveness, and access to land.
A member of the task force, East Kootenay MLA Bill Bennett, was appointed in June as the Minister of State for Mining, charged with implementing the plan. He spoke with CMJ in mid-November.
“One of my roles as Mines Minister is to help generate confidence in British Columbia as a solid and reliable place to bring your mining dollars. That means spending lots of time with the financial people here in B.C. and elsewhere.
“Another part is to educate the general public as to the benefits that come from the mining industry. People are using products from mining every day, and they don’t know it. I tell them that mining pays excellent wages. The average wage in mining in B.C. is $94,000 if you include the benefits. Mining uses 0.03% of the B.C. land base, so it’s a very tiny footprint for a $5-billion industry [total fiscal impact]. With today’s reclamation standards and of course the environmental assessment process, it’s a modest impact on the land base for the benefits that come from it. Mining obviously pays lots of royalties to government, which pays for education and health care, things that are important to people.”
The province’s hot economy has resulted in a dearth of available skilled workers, so the government is investing in training people, both underground miners and skilled trades people. Between 2004 and 2010, the government is adding 25,000 new student spaces at colleges, university-colleges, universities and institutes across the province. As well, Bennett’s ministry is funding the training of First Nations people as prospectors.
British Columbia is well located as a mineral exporter, with access to seaports at the doorstep to China and the rest of Asia, but improvements are needed to its infrastructure. “What the industry tells me they want us to focus on is power,” says Bennett. “In northwest B.C., there are a lot of large exploration projects, but they don’t have electricity. Putting a power line up Hwy. 37 is a major project that I’m trying to push through government.
“There are things that we need to do as government to make sure that this province is competitive with the rest of the world, for the mining industry. And when you talk about coal, the rest of the world really is mainly Australia. Access to railways, good roads and the port facilities themselves are very important to the mining industry. We have to invest in rural resource roads, and we’ve done that. We can’t fund or subsidize the rail infrastructure, but we can certainly work with CP and CN in the approvals process, to get that expansion done as quickly as possible.
“We need to build more capacity around the ports. The northeast is just going nuts right now with coal mining activity. All of that coal will probably be shipped through Ridley Terminals at Prince Rupert. The federal government is trying to sell Ridley and we have an arrangement with the federal government that, whomever they sell Ridley to, they’re going to allow the province some sort of regulation of port activities including the costs that are charged.”
Introducing a two-zone system has improved security of land access. Says Bennett: “One way to create certainty is to say, ‘Yes, you can mine in these areas’ or ‘No, you can’t mine’. You don’t mine inside parks or protected areas [about 12% of the land], but the rest of the province is a go-mining zone.” The approvals process has been sped up. “From the day that you submit your application, we try to get a response to you within 180 days,” claims Bennett.
On another front, “We’re trying to be leaders in the country to construct a more positive relationship with First Nations,” says Bennett. “A number of the mining companies have realized that, if a mine’s going to go forward in their traditional territory, there has to be some way for First Nations to benefit. If First Nations do benefit, they tend to be strong partners and help the project move forward.
“I encourage First Nations and companies to talk about how First Nations can benefit, not only in strictly financial ways like sharing royalties and profits, but perhaps more importantly, getting their people trained to work in the mines. Then they can have a good job and feed their family and sustain their communities.
“It’s actually going relatively well. There are still some issues. There will always be people who want mines to develop and people who don’t.”
Mineral titles online
Mineral Titles Online (MTO) is an innovative web-based system that brings mineral title acquisition in British Columbia into the 21st century. Prior to MTO, staking a mineral claim was labour-intensive and expensive; a prospector had to fashion posts from trees and mark out the perimeter of the claim on the land. MTO has revolutionized the way the mineral exploration industry does business using the Internet, digital mapping and e-commerce.
MTO was developed by the Titles Division of the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources in collaboration with the ministries of Agriculture and Lands, Finance and Labour and Citizens Services. Pacific GeoTech Systems Ltd. of Victoria was the primary contractor.
The system was implemented Jan. 12, 2005, replacing ground staking of mineral claims with an on-line digital map selection process. The innovative geographic information system (GIS) allows viewing of provincial mineral ti
tle and mapping information from any computer with Internet access.
The result is up-to-date mapping, instantaneous issuance of title, secure payment of fees to the government and full access to mineral titles information for industry and the general public.
The mining industry has obviously embraced MTO, as seen by the record-breaking level of staking activity: 14,261 new claims had been acquired online this year as of Oct. 31, a 160% increase over the number staked last year. MTO has reduced direct costs to the mining industry for ground staking by an estimated $8.5 million in the first nine months. This and other indirect savings can be directed towards mineral exploration, thereby increasing the chances of finding and developing a new mine.
The online system and the elimination of numerous regulatory requirements have increased the security of mineral titles, and enhanced British Columbia’s ability to attract mining investment. Industry analysts agree that MTO is helping re-invigorate the mining industry in the province.