Ontario doesn’t need Ring of Fire to achieve EV ambitions: experts

By Alan S. Hale May 18, 2023

Amid growing objections from First Nations, Premier Doug Ford remains dead set on developing the Ring of Fire to fuel Ontario’s goal of becoming a major player in the EV industry.

But three mining industry experts Queen’s Park Today spoke to said Ontario can become a major global EV hub without the Ring of Fire.

However, they said giving up on the project would be a drastic measure that could significantly set that goal back for a long time and would also have geopolitical implications.

Geologist and mining consultant Jim Franklin helped Spider Resources — the company that discovered mineral deposits in the Ring of Fire while searching for diamonds — understand what they had found.

The Ring of Fire contains three main deposits, according to Franklin: one is a mixture of copper and zinc; the second, a very large and hard-to-extract chromite deposit; and a “significant” deposit of nickel and copper.

Although the nickel and copper deposit is “textbook” and of high quality, Franklin said it’s not the game-changer it’s being made out to be.

“The bottom line is that these are very significant resources and if you build the proper infrastructure — either road or rail — more will be discovered,”  said Franklin. “But in the world of nickel deposits it’s not a huge deposit … It could become, maybe not a world-class mineral district, but certainly Canada-class.“

Franklin believes some of the province’s claims about the resource potential in the Ring of Fire are “overblown” and EV development could be pursued without the project because there are other sources of nickel already close-at-hand.

“Let’s face it, Sudbury is already one of the world’s largest nickel districts in the world and has been for well over 100 years, and is not going away,” said Franklin. “Then you add to that the nickel belt in Manitoba, which is also a world-class nickel district … so we are not without nickel.”

Other critical minerals used in EV battery production, like lithium, can be mined in Ontario, but aren’t major components of the Ring of Fire.

Premier Doug Ford announces plans for a new, heavily subsidized Volkswagen EV battery facility in St. Thomas. (Twitter/Doug Ford)

Ontario nickel extraction has global implications

Simply using existing sources of nickel is not going to be enough, according to Simon Jowitt, an economic geology professor at the University of Nevada. He estimates global nickel production needs to double by 2040 at the latest in order to provide the resources necessary to allow the global economy to electrify.

“We can either mine more domestically and try to keep the money and supply chain within our countries in order to fully realize the value of those natural resources, or you can get it from somewhere else,” Jowitt said.

Another mining expert who asked not to be named due to ties with the project proponent, Ring of Fire Metals, also agreed that the Ring of Fire is not the linchpin of Ontario’s EV dreams.

“We know how much metal is there. We know what it would cost to be able to access resources,” they said. “It’s a significant resource that would certainly make Ontario more self-sufficient in terms of battery supply chain, [but] realistically, I think the province could walk away from the Ring of Fire without killing the strategy.”

Ring of Fires Metals disagrees, telling Queen’s Park Today its research indicates demand for nickel will triple while the deposit it has located represents a 20-year supply of nickel that will be “integral” to providing critical minerals to Canadian industry.

“In Ontario, the deposit is a cornerstone for developing additional downstream processing capability and establishing the province as a globally significant producer of battery materials,” the company said in a statement.

The burgeoning EV industry in the United States is also betting on Canada being a stable source of nickel.

“Canada produces about 110,000 tonnes of nickel per year, while mines in the United States produce 18,000 tonnes,” Jowitt said, adding that it can take up to 16 years for a new nickel mine to start producing.

“All these factories need nickel and lithium from somewhere and we’re looking around to find secure supplies, with Canada being an obvious place … Certainly the [U.S.] federal government really does want that nickel supply.”

If Canada doesn’t supply the nickel to meet that increasing demand, other major producers of similarly high-grade nickel will step in, namely adversarial nations Russia and China. Indonesia is also a major producer of nickel, but its ore is of a much lower quality, making it useful for making steel but not batteries due to the cost of adequately refining Indonesian nickel ore.

The source connected to Ring of Fire Metals worries that the PCs are likely in too deep to pull back on their ambitions to see the Ring of Fire come to fruition.

“The last time Doug Ford was elected, he said he was going to be on the bulldozer making the road, so they’ve invested significant political capital,” said the source.

While there is a lot riding on the Ring of Fire decision, the experts called for a balanced way forward.

“They do have some significant negotiations to do with First Nations … that’s a critical aspect in all this,” said Franklin. “There’s a little bit of slowness, you might say, in getting that off the ground.”

Ford maintains Ring of Fire will go ahead

“We’re building that Ring of Fire, as sure as I’m talking to you,” said Ford last week when asked if there is any possibility of the government backing away from the project due to Indigenous opposition.

“We do need those critical minerals to be a leader in electric vehicles. We need lithium, and we need cobalt, and we need nickel.”

That answer has not gone down well with Neskantaga First Nation, which issued a statement yesterday blasting Ford’s comments and insisting their “free, prior and informed consent” is absolutely necessary for the project and its associated access road to go forward.

“Premier Ford has signalled his intent to trample Indigenous rights,” the First Nation wrote. “No road will cross our river and no ore will be mined over our objections.”

For the past several months, Neskantaga and its allies have suggested that they are prepared to attempt to block construction, but Ford expects First Nations in favour of the project would intervene if others tried to prevent road construction.

“I don’t think the other First Nations communities would be too happy about it,” the premier said. ”That’s something we would sit down with them and the other communities to work things out, but this is critical to the future of Ontario.”

Neskantaga accused the province of adopting a “divide and conquer strategy” and of “undermining the unity of the Matawa First Nations by offering backroom deals to some.”

Ring of Fire Metals would not comment on the government’s approach to dealing with First Nations but said it is committed to “open dialogue and transparent engagement” as it works “towards genuine partnership with Indigenous communities.”