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Communities on the Move: Sudbury's mining landscape 'never been more exciting,' says exec

Stakeholders champion city as leader in critical minerals production

The Sudbury Basin has been a mining hotspot for more than a century, but as demand grows for critical minerals like nickel, there’s never been a more exciting time for the industry than right now.

That’s according to Gord Gilpin, the director of Ontario operations for Vale Base Metals, who led off a Sudbury-themed panel discussion at the BEV In Depth: Mines to Mobility conference May 30 at Cambrian College.

Panellists discussed the future of mining in Sudbury and the city’s current and anticipated place in the battery electric vehicle supply chain.

As the world rapidly moves toward electrification, demand for nickel is estimated to double between now and 2030, Gilpin said.

Not only is Vale at the forefront of meeting that demand, but the company is able to do so sustainably, he added.

“It’s all very great to come out with some electric vehicles where your footprint on the earth is reduced substantially, but you’ve got to keep in mind what it takes to build the vehicles,” Gilpin said.

“And, so, basically, if the nickel is not green, what’s the point?”

Vale’s nickel falls in the top quartile in terms of sustainability, he noted, giving the company a competitive edge when it comes to supplying the mineral to users around the globe.

The mining company does have its challenges to address, Gilpin said, but, in general, its future in the Sudbury Basin is very promising.

“We've been around for 100 years, and people are asking, ‘Okay, you know, is there anything left (to mine) after 100 years?’” Gilpin said.

“And I can tell you, because of what's going on out there right now, things have never been more exciting.”

Glencore’s Sudbury Integrated Nickel Operations (INO) is embarking on its $1.3-billion Onaping Depth project, an all-electric, ultra-deep mine north of Sudbury that will provide the company with a new source of nickel beyond 2035.

But as pressure mounts to remain competitive on the global market, diversification is proving to be a winning formula for Glencore, according to Peter Xavier, vice-president of Glencore Sudbury INO.

Its Sudbury smelter processes nickel sourced from both Sudbury and out of province, as well as international concentrates, along with material from junior mining companies that don’t have their own processing capabilities.

“Sudbury, with that infrastructure, we're able to be resilient against the ups and downs of the polymetallic nature,” Xavier said. “The fact that we have these processing facilities here that could sort of expand our reach beyond Sudbury, I think is a big strategic strength that we have.”

He also pointed to the fact that nickel has applications beyond just battery electric vehicles.

Nickel from Sudbury is more likely to be in a SpaceX spaceship than it is to be in a Tesla automobile, he said, and its versatility bodes well for the Sudbury region.​

Pictured from left are Nadia Mykytczuk, CEO of MIRARCO; Paul Fowler, senior vice-president at Magna Mining; Grant Mourre,  CEO at SPC Nickel; Peter Xavier, vice-president of Glencore Sudbury INO; Gord Gilpin, head of Vale Base Metals' Ontario operations; and moderator Meredith Armstrong, director of economic development for Greater Sudbury. | BEV In Depth photo

​For emerging companies like SPC Nickel, one of the greatest challenges is getting access to development funds to move projects forward, noted Grant Mourre, the company’s CEO and director.

The company is exploring two deposits at its Lockerby East nickel-copper property, located west of the city on land that hosted the Lockerby Mine, which operated from 1970 to 2015. SPC Nickel signed a co-operation agreement with Vale to consolidate two properties in 2023.

Despite the challenges, however, Mourre said he believes Sudbury serves as a model for other jurisdictions when it comes to bringing mineral deposits into production.

“Sudbury is really kind of the shining example of how mining should be done, from the development stage through to production and then into the reclamation stage,” Mourre said.

Because of Sudbury’s long mining history, there’s lots of infrastructure already in place that SPC can take advantage of, Mourre said, and that gives SPC a step up that exploration companies in other regions just don’t have.

Paul Fowler agrees.

He’s the senior vice-president at Magna Mining, which is aiming to start test-mining nickel and copper at its Crean Hill project by year’s end. The company signed an off-take agreement with Vale to enable that work in March.

Whether it’s having the infrastructure in place or the social licence to operate, the climate in Sudbury enables companies to get going cost-effectively and quickly.

That’s becoming increasingly important as it gets costlier and more challenging to secure development capital.

“I struggle to think of anywhere in Canada, or even on the planet, whereby you've got the infrastructure in place already that can allow you to get into production or expand production for such limited capital costs,” Fowler said.

Sudbury is also making its mark in the world of research and innovation.

Nadia Mykytczuk, the CEO and president of MIRARCO, and the executive director of Laurentian University’s Goodman School of Mines, is known for her research into the use of naturally occurring microbes to recover leftover minerals from mine tailings ponds.

She’s currently leading a campaign to establish a Centre for Mine Waste Technologies in Sudbury, which would serve as a hub for research, innovation and global expertise on the matter.

Mykytczuk noted Sudbury’s long history with regreening, which has rejuvenated a barren landscape, following the early days of mining, into a lusher, greener city. That early work has served as a model for other mining jurisdictions to follow.

Now, as people around the globe look to electrification to help address climate change, Sudbury can once again be a leader, Mykytczuk said, noting that partnerships amongst organizations are key to that.

“Sudbury had to do some pretty massive changes when we dealt with sulfur dioxide emissions in the 1970s and lead the way in environmental restoration that had never been done anywhere else in the world,” Mykytczuk said.

“And so we're sort of standing on the shoulders of a lot of people that have shown that you need all the right people in the room, you need all stakeholders working together, in order to make these massive step changes. And we're living that transition right now.”