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Recent surveys of mining executives conducted by the Institut de la Statistique du Québec point to a nearly 10-per-cent decrease in mining investment in the province this year. (GARETH P HATCH)
Recent surveys of mining executives conducted by the Institut de la Statistique du Québec point to a nearly 10-per-cent decrease in mining investment in the province this year. (GARETH P HATCH)

Quebec mining reforms mired in bottomless pit of politics Add to ...

Amid a slew of bad mining news, this was a little gem: Quest Rare Minerals Ltd. plans to build a $1.3-billion plant in the Centre-du-Québec city of Bécancour to process heavy rare earth minerals, to be extracted from its Strange Lake deposit in Northern Quebec. The plant, billed as the largest facility of its kind in North America, will employ 300 people when it opens in 2017.

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But just like rare earth minerals, which are essential to the production of myriads of electronic goods and gizmos, but whose supply is uncertain as top-producer China curtails its exports, such interesting projects are increasingly rare.

Recent surveys of mining executives conducted by the Institut de la Statistique du Québec point to a nearly 10-per-cent decrease in mining investment in the province this year, to a little over $4.6-billion. It would be the first decline for Canada’s top destination for mining investments in more than a decade, after a record 2012. And while 2013 will remain a good year by historical standards, the slide will likely continue, with a 28-per-cent drop in exploration spending expected to follow the already steep 26-per-cent fall of 2012.

That hole could get deeper with all the uncertainty that surrounds mining rules in the province. Waiting for an update of the province’s old mining law is like waiting for the Nordiques to return to Quebec City: Your faith is really put to the test.

Two weeks ago, opposition parties in the National Assembly shot down the Parti Québécois’s Bill 43, the third mining reform to be killed in close to four years.

The extensive powers the bill would have given to the minister of natural resources, who would have held a veto on all mining projects, were denounced as arbitrary by both mining executives and environmentalists, who feared lobbyist pressures. But it was also payback time for the Liberals. Their own mining reform was stalled by Natural Resources Minister Martine Ouellet when she sat in opposition; after countless hours of parliamentary work, the bill died when provincial elections were called.

As imperfect as the PQ’s reform was, it did strike a better balance between the rights of the mining companies and those of the municipalities before drilling equipment would tear up the ground. Among other measures, it required companies to set aside money to cover all of a mine’s projected restoration costs. This is a major issue in Quebec, where the commissioner of sustainable development pegs the clean-up costs of orphan mining sites at $1.2-billion, a costly liability for the cash-strapped province.

Environmentalists – who rightly feel they have wasted years of work – are incensed at the death of the mining reform. But that outcome was welcomed with relief by many in the mining industry. Their sigh was all the more vocal, given that the minority government’s reform of the province’s royalty regime could suffer the same fate and be flushed down the toilet.

Even if the PQ watered down its 2012 campaign proposals, the new way to calculate the royalties displeases mining executives. All companies would technically have to pay royalties on their mining production, whether they’re profitable or not. They would also have to pay a supertax on profits, the rate for which would rise progressively.

But the mining industry’s “victories” may be short lived. This is no real status quo. Rather, the regulatory flux that has confused mining investors will persist just as the industry is weathering a cyclical downturn. And with their ability to invest in jurisdictions that are more attractive than Quebec – places with lower operating costs, higher mineral concentrations or that are closer to international clients – you don’t need a doctoral degree to figure this might hinder new investments.

Over the weekend, Premier Pauline Marois indicated the PQ will not throw in the towel. “Martine Ouellet and I, we will not give up and we will pass this reform,” she said. As Ms. Marois attacks the opposition parties for so-called obstructionist tactics, you can already see the outlines of the PQ’s upcoming election pitch.

The Péquistes will depict the opposition parties as the ones who colluded with the mining industry, the same way they will paint the Liberals as the ones who opposed the new wide-reaching language law or the Quebec Charter of Values. In essence, they will play the identity card and claim Liberals work against the interests of Quebec.

If that discourse sways a majority of Quebeckers, the industry will have to brace for the backlash. The mining reform and the new royalties will come back with a vengeance.

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