Yukon’s minerals remain untapped in 2019

Materials World magazine
1 Jul 2019

Michael Schwartz looks at the mainly untapped Canadian territory that is Yukon.

Yukon, one of Canada’s three federal territories along with Nunavut and North-West Territories, is regarded as a world-class mineral jurisdiction. Its diverse rock types testify to more than one billion years of geological history. Minerals awaiting exploitation in Yukon include copper, iron, silver, gold, zinc and lead.

Minerals have been found at 2,700 sites in Yukon, but they cover just 12% of the region’s landmass, hence the interest shown in the area. It is backed up by Yukon’s very high status within the Fraser Institute’s survey of senior mining executives, coming ninth out of 83 jurisdictions overall.

An exceptional amount of information on the mineral wealth of Yukon is available. The Mining Intelligence map, a data service for the mining industry published in June 2018, is split between north and south Yukon. The contrast is staggering between the northern expanses waiting for exploration – even allowing for the areas designated for nature-conservation – and the multitude of companies exploring and mining in the south. South Yukon benefits from proximity to the port of Skagway, Alaska, while transport links are far rarer in the northern portion – large areas of the north are barred to mining as they are delineated as protected natural land.

In addition, the Yukon Mining Alliance (YMA) is forthright in its advocacy of local mining. Its booklet, Nine reasons to invest in Yukon exploration and mining companies reveals the rise in mining investment from 2015-2017, CAD$28mln in development and CAD$65mln in exploration for 2015, but CAD$68mln and CAD$90mln respectively for 2017. The interest extends to several major firms including Barrick, Kinross and Goldcorp.

YMA also points to relations among First Nations, the Yukon government and the mining sector. It states that, ‘Yukon First Nations are at the forefront of indigenous land claims and self-government in Canada. Eleven of 14 First Nations have settled their claims and are self-governing. This represents approximately half of all such agreements in Canada.’

On the subject of First Nations in Yukon, Go Cobalt President Scott Sheldon said, ‘We see relations with First Nations as more of a discussion than a negotiation. If both sides voice their concerns in an open discussion there is a better chance of coming to a mutually beneficial outcome.’

Advocating Yukon

Ten years old, the YMA describes itself as ‘a strategic industry alliance of Yukon’s leading exploration, development and mining companies…focused on creating innovative capital attraction initiatives to promote Yukon’s competitive advantages’.

In addition, to join YMA member companies must already have identified resources and invested significant project expenditures in Yukon. Corporate sustainability policies regarding community and labour relations, as well as environmental responsibility must also be demonstrated. Other initiatives, supported by the government of Yukon, feature the YMA attending events in the North American, European and Asian financial markets.

Yukon Chamber of Mines

Mining is further supported by the Yukon Chamber of Mines (YCM) created almost 70 years ago, which works to serve its members and to advance the interests of the Yukon mining industry. Membership has now reached 400 from a dozen founders. YCM members are involved in mining processes including exploration, mining and service and supply companies, contractors and individuals.

YCM Executive Director, Samson Hartland, told Materials World, ‘Our lobbying efforts are only as effective as our membership engagement, which in our organisation is more engaged than most. It is due to the effective membership engagement that we are effective on the lobbying front. We have a strong and unified membership from quartz operators, through to placer operators, and right on down to the individual prospector.

‘As we continue our communications efforts as outlined in our five-year strategic plan, we continue to educate local populations from all age demographics on the benefits of a Yukon mining industry. It is through this educational outreach, undertaken in partnership with the Yukon government, that we are shifting public perceptions in order to support public policy.’

In terms of key lobbying achievement, Hartland continued, ‘It would be the announcement of the Yukon Resource Gateway project by the Prime Minister in 2017. We led a delegation to Parliament Hill in 2016 represented by companies whose projects in remote regions of Yukon stood to be unlocked from roads built into the Tintina province located in Yukon […] A significant financial commitment which has begun to materialise in this year’s Yukon infrastructure budget.’

When it comes to best practices, First Nations again come into the equation. Hartland pointed to the rolling out of the Yukon First Nations Engagement and Consultation Guide for Mineral Proponents. This is a pioneering online map-based application which provides information on both the boundaries of all 17 Yukon and transboundary First Nations traditional territories, and their mineral policies and legislation. Early and frequent engagement with First Nations is the result.

Western Copper and Gold

Western Copper and Gold Corporation (WCGC) is currently developing its Casino project into a major copper-gold mine. Currently in the environmental assessment review phase, the Casino project extends to a copper-gold-molybdenum and silver deposit in west-central Yukon, located about 300km northwest of Whitehorse. Casino’s porphyry copper deposits rank among the largest anywhere – proven and probable reserves run to 8.9 million ounces of gold, 4.5 billion pounds of copper, 483 million pounds of molybdenum and 65 million ounces of silver.

WCGC President and CEO, Dr Paul West-Sells, told Materials World the challenges the company faces and the ways in which it meets them – some of them crucial if the project is to succeed.

Energy is one such. West-Sells explained where WCGC obtains its energy. ‘Powering mines in Northern Canada is a very interesting challenge. One solution has been to truck in liquefied natural gas (LNG). Several mines have adopted this while LNG is now burnt in Whitehorse, replacing diesel. It is increasingly being adopted – LNG is the power solution of the North,’ he said.

The local transport network, too, must be up to the task of moving the mineral output envisioned. In this respect, West-Sells is optimistic. ‘Yukon has a very good network of highways connecting to Skagway, and in the past copper concentrate has been transported to that area. At the end of 2017 we had the national Prime Minister and the Prime Minister of Yukon announce a package of three roads, one leading to our mine. We feel very comfortable – the First Nations are also very supportive,’ he said.

Coincidentally, this question of transportation was raised with YCM. Hartland replied, ‘Yukon is best positioned out of all Canada’s north when it comes to transportation networks. It is strategically located just mere hours from Skagway, which is the closest North American port to primary Asian markets. Including Skagway, Yukon has access to three ice-free year-round ports. In addition, Yukon has a robust road transportation network of more than 5,000km of government-maintained roads. The Yukon Resource Gateway project is essentially the key that will unlock Yukon’s full mineral potential and compliment the current network that already exists.’

WCGC is now tackling its environmental challenges and obligations, with West-Sells confirming that projects and plans are being put in place for when mining starts. Currently, the company is working on obtaining its environmental approvals. More specifically, ‘One factor affecting large copper mines is tailings, which are a challenge. At the end of 2018 we completed a strategy for tailings, which also involved First Nations. We have evaluated all the different technologies and have moved on to our chosen solution. All our designs have gained community support,’ he said.

Indeed, it is this aspect of community that is greatly emphasised by WCGC, for example, a corporate social responsibility obligation (CSR). West-Sells said, ‘As a company, we have a CSR programme negotiated with Yukon. Support includes a hot school lunch programme and a scholarship scheme.’ In addition, the situations mentioned in this interview involving working with First Nations demonstrate the company’s commitment.

Go Cobalt

Companies have gone to Yukon in search for cobalt, particularly to gain enough supply to match the demand for vehicle batteries. One such company is Vancouver-based Go Cobalt, which is developing the company Monster Property to help meet demand for a battery-powered future. Sheldon said Go Cobalt is currently an exploration company with no active mining taking place.

‘The Monster’, as Go Cobalt calls it, is a copper-cobalt-gold inferred resource area covering 67km² of the Ogilvie Mountains in the Dawson Mining District. Over the 17km length of the property there are zones of elevated copper and cobalt concentrations. Major iron-ore-copper-gold (IOCG) deposit trends have recently been recognised as hosting cobalt. Geological evidence from similar geological structures to support this development comes from correlated IOCG deposits in Australia and Chile.

A remote spectral geology sensing survey was performed over the area The Monster covers in 2018. This technique – specifically employing Landsat five, seven and eight and Sentinel two satellite data – has identified those sections of The Monster with the highest potential to host copper gold and and copper-cobalt mineralisation.

This year it is becoming evident that two areas of exploration on The Monster are offering the greatest potential, the CC Zone and the appropriately named Cobalt Cirque. Indeed, rock samples from these two areas have revealed cobaltite and erythrite, both different types of cobalt mineralisation.

Sheldon spoke about access to The Monster and the environmental aspects arising therefrom by pointing out that, ‘Our Yukon property is helicopter/fixed wing access only. There is an old road but it is out of service at this point […] Even though we are only exploration stage we take our environmental obligations very seriously. This is done through reclamation and registering appropriate permits.’

Energy, environment, CSR

So how do Yukon mines meet their energy requirements? Depending on which project and in which part of Yukon, most quartz operations are connected into the Yukon grid, where 95MW of power comes mainly from the hydroelectric dams built for mines over the decades – the entire grid is 97% supplied by renewable energy. Regarding LNG, certain projects feature LNG to supplement or independently produce energy dependent on circumstances. In turn, the Yukon government has brought in an independent power production policy to allow independent producers to produce and sell power back into the grid.

In environmental terms, Yukon enjoys a unique tripartite (federal, Yukon and Yukon First Nations) approach to environmental assessment. The Yukon Environmental and Socio-Economic Assessment Board reviews all proposed projects and provides recommendations on mitigations to government prior to permit sign-off. This is undertaken with the proponent and requires direct communication with affected First Nation communities if they do not exist already.

CSR is not mandatory but Yukon is small enough (40,000 people across 480,000km²) for public perceptions to harm an operation not being effected under CSR best practices. Successful proponents typically engage early with affected First Nations. Yukon University’s Centre for Northern Innovation in Mining built with federal and territorial funding in 2017 houses all the programmes required to successfully integrate into Yukon’s mining industry - just one of the reasons why Yukon is emerging as a highly respected administration.