Outgoing PDAC president weighs in on the keys to a vibrant exploration sector 

Alex Christopher was appointed president of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada in March 2021 for a two-year term. The geologist and senior vice-president, projects & technical services with Teck Resources, has nearly 40 years of industry experience – and has been on the board of PDAC for a decade.

While starting his term during the Covid-19 pandemic has posed challenges – Christopher estimates 30-40% of PDAC’s energy has had to go into to managing issues related to the pandemic rather than being completely focused on long-term issues important to its members – his term has seen an acceleration in support for the critical minerals space in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. Christopher spoke to The Northern Miner in February about how to ensure Canada’s juniors can compete to deliver the critical minerals the world needs.

The Northern Miner: You began your term one year after the pandemic started. A lot has changed and in the last few years including the pandemic and then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has been an extremely disruptive event for the markets and for commodities. What are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities right now for explorers in this environment?

Alex Christopher: First of all, if we think about what society is really looking for, it’s really moving towards a less carbon-intensive world. One of the things we have to do as an industry is get out there and work hard to change the hearts and minds of society for them to recognize the importance of the industry, how it impacts their lives and how it contributes to that transition to a lower carbon environment. Without mining, we won’t have the metals and minerals we need to be able to do that. Given the world wants us to do that at pace, we have to look really hard at how we go about doing our business, how we go about permitting and approving mines so that we can actually have those critical minerals that we need. Now the government’s come out with the Critical Minerals Strategy and how that works with industry and the implementation of that dovetails with industry to allow us to advance those projects that are required. The whole transition to a lower carbon economy, in my mind presents a generational opportunity for young people coming into the industry. Canada is a resource-rich nation and we can lead the way in many areas with respect to this. If I was a young person coming into the industry, I’d be really stoked right now about the opportunities ahead of me.

TNM: It’s interesting — I asked about challenges and opportunities and you didn’t immediately go into things like permitting, you went into a more basic, fundamental problem, which is the perception of mining.

AC: Yeah, obviously the more alignment we have with respect to the fundamental importance of the industry to society, then permitting and evidence-based land use, and the decisions we make around that will flow more naturally. So sometimes tackling the big issue in the background is important to actually allow us to move forward on specific challenges that we may have in different areas.

TNM: How can Canada compete with other jurisdictions? I’m thinking in particular of Australia, which also has a thriving mining sector and capital market for exploration.

AC: The first thing you want to do is make sure you do not put policy in place that chases people away. There’s one thing about attracting that investment and competing and there’s another thing about chasing that away. So clarity around rules and regulations, ensuring that we have streamlined permitting, these are all key to holding on to the investment community that we do have.

The Canadian government does a good job with respect to fiscal incentives. I mean, a lot of work has been focused on that, whether those are the mineral exploration tax credit or the flow-through shares regime, which is great for attracting capital, and ensuring that we have a process in place to allow access to land for exploration. As I said earlier, that evidence-based decision making is an important piece of this to ensure that we truly are generating the geoscience data that we need and we’re making evidence-based decisions when we set land aside for conservation efforts. Access to infrastructure, particularly in some of our northern or remote areas is important, and I’d say that Australia – although it’s a large country – probably has less infrastructure challenges than we have here in Canada given the nature of the terrain.

Overall, sound government policies that are stable and don’t change rapidly because members are essentially looking for a stable environment where they can understand the rules.

Our main competitor is Australia. We’ve always prided ourselves in the fact that the Canadian markets were the top in the world for raising money. But I think the Australians are basically up at the podium.

TNM: Last year, the federal government announced a number of policy and funding initiatives designed to help Canada compete in the critical mineral space. How do you think Canada is doing on this overall given the competition?

AC: I think that overall, we’re saying all the right things. The effort that the government put into the Critical Minerals Strategy, making fiscal incentives available like the Critical Minerals Exploration Tax Credit, these are important pieces. How the strategy is rolled out, how the dollars that are made available are utilized, and how this dovetails into the industry and then ultimately into our ability to permit or fast-track opportunities, those are key. So I think we’ve got some good steps, but we still have a way to go.

TNM: Have juniors seen any actual improvement in terms of benefits coming from this new attention to the critical mineral space?

AC: The government’s earmarked a fair bit of money in their budget, $400 million in 2022, and a total of almost $4 billion. We have seen some material uptick in the amount of exploration spending on the critical minerals in 2022 and expect that this will continue through 2023.

I do think though that there are certain critical minerals that are a bit more mainstream than others, and we still need to see some investment in downstream infrastructure to generate higher levels of investments in certain critical minerals. Quite often the challenge is that sometimes that downstream infrastructure needs to be fed by multiple smaller operations if we truly want to be producing an end product here in Canada.

TNM: Is there another jurisdiction that’s doing that better that we could model?

AC: I can’t speak to that because this is a very dynamic, changing landscape. I think one of the things that we’re going to have to watch is permitting timelines for minerals that are critical in the transition to a lower carbon economy. Time will tell whether we see movement in that area. 

TNM: What does PDAC see is the best way to improve permitting times?

AC: I think there’s a couple things here. Coordinating collaboration between the provincial and federal regulators is key so that there’s clarity that the companies are looking at one regulatory regime or at least a one-step process rather than a two-step process. That can provide a lot of certainty and a lot of speed and I think that varies from province to province. Improvement there is a key piece to improve permitting timelines.

I also think that the better understanding we have of our land base, so clear mineral potential models developed across the country and using those models for evidence-based land management and conservation decision-making is really important. When we have that sound data set then we can actually make decisions faster and based more on fact than on essentially heart.

There’s still work to be done (to collect that data) and certainly funding from the government to do that is important.

TNM: I’m curious how you see the opportunity for Canadian juniors to serve both the U.S. market with the Inflation Reduction Act Funding and their efforts to incentivize local supply chains and reshoring, and the European market with the EU’s Green Deal. Do we have an opportunity to serve both of those markets?

AC: When you say serve, I think there’s two things. One is the Canadian exploration and development industry which focused on resource development, and we work with our members here both in Canada and abroad to ensure they have the tools to be successful in those areas.

There’s a bit of a difference between that and the mining industry and the supply of the metals to those various jurisdictions, and working with like-minded governments to bolster the supply chain for critical minerals.

I think I can speak to the former rather than the latter, but certainly there’s opportunity. The capital markets are key here though to ensuring that we’ve got the funding required to do what we need to do. If Canadian companies have the benefit when they do work in Canada, they can use the flow through share financing which is really critical and more critical and in down times than up times to sustain the industry.

I think the U.S. has the same challenges as Canada with respect to permitting timelines and it will be interesting to see how some of their changes in policy really affect that and the ability to develop at a faster pace.

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