In the fall of 2020, Quebec launched plans to produce electric vehicles, develop battery recycling technologies, and exploit the province’s reserves of graphite, lithium, nickel, and cobalt for battery and EV parts.

Fast-forward two years and municipalities and environmental groups are now sounding the alarm over a recent spike in exploratory mining claims for these critical minerals in natural areas and near parks in the province’s southern tourist region.

Quebec’s electric vehicle and battery policies, outlined in the Plan for the Development of Critical and Strategic Minerals and the Strategy for the Development of the Battery Sector, are meant to help reduce the province’s use of greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels and to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. But the latest mining claims amount to “tunnel vision” because they don’t take in to account potential damage to important areas of biodiversity, says Anne-Josée Laquerre, executive director and co-founder of Quebec Net Positive, a non-profit organization that aims to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy.

In August, a coalition of provincial and national environmental groups released a map showing a sharp rise in exploratory mining claims, ranging from 49.1% to 408% for the previous 18 months in four tourist regions of southern Quebec. That represents an increase nearly five times greater than anywhere else in the province.

The largest increase in mining claims was in Lanaudière (408%), followed by the Outaouais (211%), the Laurentians (71.2%) and the Mauricie (49.1%).

“These are claims in protected areas or areas near citizens that have cottages, in areas where there is tourism, or areas that would be seen from Mont Tremblant,” says Laquerre. “It’s our greenbelt.”

No requirement to consult

Last summer, about two dozen municipalities in the southern tourist regions launched a poster campaign to oppose graphite mining projects on their territory. They are asking the provincial government for a moratorium.

“We are not against mining, but the problem is that it should be done outside resort areas, and protect the lakes,” Marc L’Heureux, mayor of the municipality of Brébeuf and prefect of the MRC des Laurentides told Radio Canada.

Despite the campaign, few residents are aware of the claims and the Mining Act doesn’t require companies to consult or even inform municipalities, or Indigenous communities before acquiring new mining claims on their territories, says Laquerre.

“If the local population is unaware and government is pushing this, investors in these mines may not realize their investment could be at risk because social acceptance has not been established,” she says.

Laquerre is also keen to point out the irony behind mining for EV battery minerals in forested areas that act as carbon sinks. Trees pull carbon from the atmosphere in a process known as carbon sequestration. Losing forests means losing a nature-based mitigation strategy for climate change.

Plus, these forested ecosystems, along with their freshwater lakes and rivers, support biodiversity, which is crucial for human health. Plants filter atmospheric and water-based pollutants, bacteria decompose wastes, insects pollinate flowers, and tree roots hold soil in place to prevent erosion.

Location, location, location

According to an interactive map published by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests, exploratory mining claims include those on the edge of major parks and recreation areas such as Mont Tremblant and Lac Taureau.

There are also mining claims in ZECs, or zone d’exploitation contrôlée (controlled harvesting zones), such as ZEC Bras-Coupé-Désert, ZEC Pontiac and ZEC Capitachouane. These zones were set up by the province in the 1970s to take over from private hunting, fishing and trapping clubs and to provide access to these types of recreational activities.

While ZECs are sometimes referred to as conservation areas, they are “areas that have been accommodated to host hunters and fishermen,” says Marc Legault, a geology professor at Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue.

That said, there are some claims in areas that are designated protected. “But if you click on them (in the ministry’s map), they tell you there’s no exploration permitted,” says Legault. “It’s just that the claims are over 20 years old and were made before those areas were sealed off from exploration.”

A mining claim gives its owner the right to explore a piece of land for minerals, including drilling, stripping and deforestation. The claim is good for three years and can be renewed indefinitely, as long as the owner can prove they have spent a minimum amount of money on exploration.

The China factor

Quebec’s party leaders discussed the municipalities’ moratorium request at the leaders’ debate during the province’s fall election. «Je vais être très clair, » said Premier Francois Legault. « Il y a des milieux où il y a de l’acceptabilité sociale; d’autres où iln’y en a pas. Quand il n’y a pas d’acceptabilité sociale, il n’y aura pas d’exploitation. On va exploiter là où le milieu est d’accord pour qu’on exploite. »

Legault’s new minister of Natural Resources and Forests, Maïté Blanchette Vézina, has yet to weigh in. « Je suis consciente que c’est un enjeu d’actualité. Je suis en train de prendre connaissance des dossiers et de rencontrer les différents intervenants. Je vous reviendrai donc plus tard avec ma position sur le sujet, » she said in an emailed statement.

Meanwhile, Valérie Fillion, general manager of the Quebec Mineral Exploration Association, told Radio Canada a moratorium would have significant implications.

“If we wait, we will not see what is under our feet in Quebec, we will end up importing the raw material,” said Fillion, likely referring to the fact most critical minerals are mined in China. Governments around the world are trying to reduce their dependence on China, which is increasingly seen as a national security risk.

While Laquerre agrees concerns over China’s dominance in battery minerals are legitimate, she maintains domestic mining operations need greater scrutiny for their impact on natural environments.

“The quest for finding minerals for the energy transformation is being done for a very good reason,” she says. “The challenge is we need to figure out where it makes sense to have a mine without having too many negative impacts.”

A version of this article first appeared in Research Money