Public Subsidization of Critical Minerals Processing for Private Interests
Part of the “energy transition” many governments are promoting as the solution to the climate crisis is to establish Canada as a “global hub for the battery industry.” Plans in this direction are taking place all over Canada and particularly in the Bécancour region of Quebec.
Many mining and manufacturing monopolies involved in the production of components for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries have already announced in 2022, their intention to set up operations in the Bécancour region of Quebec along the St. Lawrence River for the processing of lithium, nickel and graphite, some of the minerals which the U.S. claims are critical to its national security. While claiming to be in favour of a green economy, they are also demanding hydroelectricity rates that they consider favourable to their own narrow private interests.
For example, in June the Brazilian mining oligopoly Vale announced plans to set up a plant in Bécancour with an annual capacity to process 25,000 tonnes of nickel sulfide into nickel sulphate, the chemical compound used in the production of pre-cathode active materials for nickel-based lithium-ion batteries. The nickel would come from its mining operations in Voisey’s Bay, Labrador or Sudbury, Ontario.
The Bécancour industrial park is also home to two other large-scale projects: one by the German firm BASF and the other by the alliance between south Korean steel company POSCO and U.S.vehicle manufacturer General Motors for the production of cathode materials — the main component of the lithium-ion battery. Nickel is also used in the manufacture of the cathodes of these same batteries, which explains Vale’s interest in Bécancour.
The graphite used for manufacturing anode-components for lithium-ion batteries is currently extracted 120 kilometres north of Montreal at the Nouveau Monde Graphite (NMG) open-pit mine that has been approved by the Quebec government, without all the environmental studies requested by the Office of Public Hearings on the Environment (BAPE) having been completed. NMG is owned in part by the British Group Pallinghurst and Investissement Québec and now also by Japanese Mitsui and Panasonic, who announced on October 20 that they are investing $25 million (U.S.) with a matching amount by Pallinghurst and Investissement Québec of $12.5 million (U.S.) each. The extracted graphite is of high purity and could also be used for weapons production. It is to be processed at a future refinery plant to be built in Bécancour, part of “completely new integrated anode production in Canada.” Already in April, both the federal and Ontario governments announced unspecified hundreds of millions of dollars in handouts to the Europe-based Stellantis and LG Energy Solution from south Korea “to build a $5 billion electric vehicle battery plant in Windsor.”
In Sorel, less than 100 kilometres upstream from Bécancour, the plant owned by the Anglo-Australian mining corporation Rio Tinto processes the titanium ore from Havre St-Pierre to extract titanium dioxide and scandium oxide, two other strategic minerals that have military applications.
On October 11, during a visit to the plant, Prime Minister Trudeau and François-Philippe Champagne, Federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, announced federal government grants of $222 million to Rio Tinto to proceed with “electrifying furnaces and replacing coal” for “decarbonizing” the plant’s operations. Rio Tinto has already announced that if “the conditions are right” it will also proceed with refining lithium from a number of international sources at the same plant.
It goes without saying that for these wealthy private interests, obtaining a hydroelectricity rate from the Quebec government they consider favourable will be a determining factor in whether they proceed with these projects in Bécancour and Sorel.
Guy Leblanc, CEO of Investissement Québec, which provides funding for Quebec’s Ministry of Economy and Innovation, said last summer: “We are in discussion with several groups. It’s confirmed: the entire chain will be established in Quebec. For the first time in Quebec’s history, we will be processing our minerals on site.”
Even if this processing is done on site, there is no indication that the Legault government will be able to control where these processed minerals end up. In other words, in the critical minerals supply chain, the extraction and initial processing is not under the control of the Legault government but rather that of large, primarily Anglo-American and Japanese private interests competing with China and Russia.
1. Although presented as only useful for electric vehicle batteries, graphite is also a component of military instruments and weapons, such as the graphite bombs used by NATO in the 1995 bombing of Yugoslavia. The graphite bomb is one of the weapons developed by the U.S. military to paralyze electrical equipment without destroying it permanently. When exploding close to the ground, this bomb releases thousands of microscopic carbon fibres that infiltrate all electrical systems — power plants, transformers and high voltage substations or telecommunication systems — and creates gigantic short-circuits. See “Green Electrification and Mining Plans that Clash with the People’s Wishes,” by Pierre Soublière, TML Daily, September 30, 2022.