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COMMENTARY: Mining will bury us all

Lewis Rifkind

Lewis Rifkind

Special to the News

The Yukon government has released the Our Clean Future 2020 annual report. This report tracks the progress the Yukon has made in regards to addressing climate change and efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It highlights a path to reach the Yukon’s 2030 climate change goals.

These goals state that by 2030 the total greenhouse emissions from transportation, heating, electricity generation, other commercial and industrial activities, waste and other areas will be 45 per cent lower than they were in 2010.

According to the report “In 2010, Yukon’s greenhouse gas emissions, excluding emissions from mining, were 611 kilotonnes. By 2030, these emissions need to be 336 kilotonnes or less to reach our new target to reduce emissions by 45 per cent. Yukon’s non-mining greenhouse gas emissions in 2018 and 2019, which are the most recent years we have data for, were 699 and 721 kilotonnes, respectively.”

Now while we all fret about the increase in emissions over the past decade (as we should), it is important to note the use of the terms “excluding emissions from mining” and “non-mining greenhouse gas emissions” by the Yukon Government. For the record, in 2018 the mining sector, according to Yukon Government estimates, emitted about 75.9 kilotonnes of GHGs, roughly ten percent of the Yukon’s emissions. To put this into perspective, the average passenger vehicle releases about 5 tonnes of GHGs in a year meaning the mining sector emitted nearly the same as one would expects from over 15,000 passenger vehicles.

This is surprisingly low when one considers that the Yukon has three operating hard rock mines and probably over one hundred active placer operations. The reason for these low emissions by the mining sector is that all of the Yukon’s operating hard-rock mines are hooked up to the grid.

That means they can access electricity mostly generated by the hydro dams to run their more energy-intensive operations, such as crushers and pumps. In 2020, 86 per cent of the electricity Yukon Energy generated was from hydro dams, so a mine is hooked up to the grid can take advantage of this renewable energy. Mining vehicles and some on-site equipment currently still require gasoline or diesel. Placer mining operations use gasoline and diesel to power their bulldozers, backhoes, trucks, pumps, and related mining equipment. There are further emissions associated with transportation to and from these isolated mines.

A central concern that groups such as the Yukon Conservation Society have over mining emissions being excluded from the rest of the Yukon’s greenhouse gas emissions is that most new mines will not be hooked up to the hydro grid. This leaves them utterly dependent on timely solutions such as diesel or liquified natural gas generators to satisfy their energy needs.

From what is currently being proposed, the mining sector will not have to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, they will operate with the almost non-existent burden of something called ‘emissions intensity’ hanging over their heads. Emissions intensity measures increases (and decreases) in the production of emissions per unit of product.

For example, suppose a mine is currently producing 10,000 ounces of gold while emitting 10 kilotonnes tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. If they increase production to 20,000 ounces of gold while emitting only 15 kilotonnes of greenhouse gases, their emissions intensity has gone down.

The flaw in this approach is obvious to the planet; total greenhouse gas emissions continue to go up. In the example cited above, the mining sector has increased the Yukon’s emissions by 5 kilotonnes despite producing more product. The Yukon needs to be reducing mining emissions by 45% by 2030, not increasing them under the guise of being more efficient.

Some would argue that the example used of only a five kilotonne increase is not too bad in the grand scheme of things. Surely reductions elsewhere in the Yukon (whether through transportation, heating, electrical generation, etc.) could increase slightly to compensate for this.

Unfortunately, some of the proposed mines working their way through the regulatory and licensing system could potentially increase the Yukon’s emissions by a significant amount, negating any small reductions made elsewhere.

The Casino Mine, according to documentation submitted as part of its original environmental assessment, is set to emit over 700 kilotonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year during some years of its operation. The Kudz Ze Kayah mine will, when operating, increase the Yukon’s emission by about 110 kilotonnes over 10 years. The Coffee Mine, when up and running, will emit about 1,000 kilotonnes over 12 years.

To add insult to injury, cleaning up the mess made by previous mining operations also emits a lot of greenhouse gasses. The Faro Mine remediation project will emit easily over 100 kilotonnes per year, possibly for 15 years. This is due to so much earth and rock having to be moved by bulldozers, backhoes, and trucks.

If the Yukon is serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the mining sector has to be included in the greenhouse gas reductions. Energy intensity is not going to work. The mining sector is going to have to find more sustainable, and non-polluting ways to power their operations.

Letting the mining sector behave as if they’re on a different planet from the rest of us when it comes to climate change, which is a result of emissions. is not realistic nor fair. This is because, and this might be a newsflash to some, we are all on the same planet, and it is the only one we’ve got.

The Yukon, by contemplating the energy intensity approach for the mining industry, is making a mockery of any attempt to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, it puts the onus of climate change action, almost entirely, on the layman rather than penalizing large-scale companies who can afford to make the shift to renewables, but choose not to. If we fail to chastise mining companies over their emissions the Yukon mining industry, through its greenhouse gas emissions, will bury us all.

Lewis Rifkind is a mining analyst with the Yukon Conservation Society.