WASHINGTON — Canada needs to sell the United States on the progressive virtues of its mining industry if it wants to be an integral partner and supplier to burgeoning electric-vehicle and critical-minerals markets south of the border, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested Tuesday.
Trudeau, wrapping up two days of high-level talks that kicked off a two-week global climate summit in Glasgow, said he had “many, many interactions” with Joe Biden in recent days, most notably at the U.S. president’s own supply chain summit on the margins of G20 meetings in Rome.
Biden is seized with finding ways to ease his country’s pandemic-induced supply chain cluster headache: a capacity crunch at U.S. ports, a global semiconductor shortage and soaring demand for the minerals that power not only cellphones and computers, but the high-tech electric cars and trucks essential to mitigating the impacts of climate change.
Canada, meanwhile, is a key source of 13 of the 35 minerals that the U.S. has identified as critical to its economic and national security — it is America’s largest single supplier of potash, indium, aluminum and tellurium, and the second-largest source of niobium, tungsten and magnesium.
China is the world’s largest rare-earth producer, with more than 60 per cent of global annual production, well ahead of the U.S., Myanmar, Australia and India. Canada is relatively new to rare-earth extraction, but it’s home to an estimated 15 million untapped tonnes of the valuable elements.
Canada and Australia both tried to impress on Biden during the supply-chain summit Friday the roles that each country could play in helping to ensure that critical minerals are readily available to the U.S.
“The challenge is, the extraction and the processing of those in our countries is more costly, because we have higher environmental standards and higher labour standards then the countries that are right now busy cornering the market on those sorts of productions,” Trudeau said.
“So the conversation we had is about, ‘Well, how much is it of value to developed countries to have a secure, friendly source of those critical minerals that are done in better and more responsible ways, even though, obviously, they may be a little more expensive?”
That’s a message that ought to resonate with Biden, whose own domestic agenda is heavily geared toward arresting the increase in atmospheric temperatures around the world, and whose foreign policy includes an aggressive effort to confront an increasingly autocratic China.
It’s clear that the U.S. still has a lot to learn about Canada’s “huge potential” for growth on critical minerals and the role it could play as a key strategic partner, said the co-author of a new Wilson Center report that calls for the private and public sectors to start working together.
The report — “The Mosaic Approach: a Multi-dimensional Strategy for Strengthening America’s Critical Minerals Supply Chain” — urges the Biden administration to work more closely with its North American partners and use the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement to leverage the mining industries in both countries.
“There is awareness in some areas of the Biden administration, but it’s far from being a whole-of-government understanding of the potential for greater collaboration with Canada,” said Duncan Wood, a senior adviser with the centre’s Mexico Institute.
“I’ve been working on critical minerals for the past couple of years, trying to develop a more unified approach to this challenge, and one of the things that has come out is the importance of Canada not only as a place where critical minerals can be extracted, but also where they can be processed.”
Wood cited the specific example of nickel, which is mined in both countries. Canada far outstrips the U.S. in terms of production, and also handles a lot of the processing work for ore that is extracted south of the border.
“What we really need to see is actually a more concerted effort on the part of the Canadian and U.S. federal governments,” as well as state and provincial governments, he said.
That’s largely the message the Canadian Chamber of Commerce tried to deliver during the federal election campaign, warning that Canada risks missing out on a “major opportunity” to be a global leader in what promises to be one of the most sought-after commodities of the 21st century.
Biden seems to be have adopted a similar philosophy.
“We’re going through a difficult time in the world because of COVID, because of supply chain consequences, because of the environment, and all that’s occurred,” the president said Tuesday during his closing news conference at the climate summit.
“I think it presents a gigantic opportunity — an opportunity to, in a sense, press the restart button and move in a direction that the vast majority of countries … think, ‘This is an opportunity.’”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 2, 2021.