Mineral exploration in Canada, between opportunities and sustainability. Interview with Manuele Lazzarotto, Exploration Geologist and PhD
by Giulio Galleri
Canada is a resource-based Country where oil and gas, mineral resources, agriculture, forestry, fishing, etc. make up over 10 % of the Country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In recent years, Canada has recognized the value of its resource sector and it is now the World’s top destination for planned non-ferrous mineral exploration spending.
We met with Manuele Lazzarotto, a Swiss-Italian geologist who has been working in the mineral exploration industry in Canada for almost the last decade. His experience is mainly centered on the development of grassroots precious and base metal exploration projects throughout Canada. Manuele holds a BSc and an MSc in Earth Sciences from ETH Zurich, Switzerland, and a PhD in Metamorphic Petrology from the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
First of all, how does a Swiss-Italian geologist end up in Canada? What does Canada have to offer, that Europe (in particular Switzerland or Italy) doesn’t?
I originally moved to Canada to pursue a PhD in geology at the University of Calgary, Alberta. The project was focused on understanding the alteration and deformation of rocks surrounding the copper-zinc-gold Volcanogenic Massive Sulphide deposits in the Flin Flon greenstone belt in west-central Manitoba. For me, this sparked the interest in mineral exploration and mining. So, I got a job in the industry and some years later I am still here. Canada is a Country with an enormous land mass and that land, partially because of its long geologic history, hosts a great number of mineral deposits. Europe on the other hand is geologically younger and smaller and simply does not have as many resources as Canada.
The history of mineral exploration in Canada/North America dates back to at least the late 1800s with the famous Gold Rush, which attracted people from all over the World to explore for gold. A lot of significant discoveries have been made since then. How have the 100+ years of mineral exploration and mining shaped the country?
Mineral exploration has been going on in North America for much longer than that. Indigenous people have been exploring and mining for gold since they first started settling the land. In their case, they were mainly looking for gold and other precious metals and stones for jewelry and art. With the Gold Rush starting in the late 1800s, explorers from all parts of the World moved in and basically kick-started the mineral industry as we know it today. Mineral exploration did not end with the end of the Gold Rush. Over the years thousands of economic discoveries have been made in Canada, and today the industry contributes a significant amount to the Country’s GDP. In 2021 the value of Canadian mineral production was CA$ 55.5 billion. Canada's top five mineral products by value for 2021 were gold, coal, iron ore concentrates, potash, and copper. Their combined value was CA$ 37.5 billion, accounting for two thirds of the total value of mineral production. In 2021 mining and mineral exploration companies spent CA$ 3.6 billion on exploration and deposit appraisal projects in Canada.
Mineral exploration and mining is one of the largest industries in Canada and can certainly compete with other parts of the World. From a geological perspective, what makes Canada such a favorable place for economic mineral deposits? What minerals/metals are found in Canada and where?
Geologically, Canada is a very interesting and attractive place. Due to the relatively long geological history of the North American continent, Canada is host to a variety of terranes that have the potential to host economic mineral deposits. First of all, one has to understand that the Earth is a dynamic environment where things change over time (think of plate tectonics, cooling of the Earth and related changes to the composition of the Earth’s crust, etc.). Different concentrations of minerals and metals are found throughout the Earth’s crust, the outer most layer of the Earth, but concentrations are often not high enough (and probably never will be) to make extraction economic. Today’s location and concentration of these metals depends a lot on the history of a certain area. Because Canada retained a lot of different geologic terranes over time, chances of finding an economic deposit are relatively high. Deposits found in Canada comprise a variety of different systems, including porphyry deposits (Copper, Gold, Silver, Molybdenum), Volcanogenic Massive Sulphide (VMS) deposits (Copper, Zinc, Gold, Silver), orogenic gold deposits (Gold, Silver), pegmatite deposits (Lithium), Rare Earth Elements (REE) deposits, Coal and Potash deposit just to name a few that come to mind right away.
In order to extract/produce these metals, mineral deposits have to be discovered. This is mainly the job of an exploration geologist. You work as an exploration geologist. What have you been focusing on over the last few years?
Indeed. I am an exploration geologist and I have been working mainly on grassroots gold-silver-copper exploration projects in British Columbia. Grassroots exploration is the process of looking for mineral deposits in previously unexplored areas or in areas where they are not already known to exist. Basically, we determine a potential area where no work has been done before, generally by looking at regional geological maps, satellite imagery, spectral data and regional geophysical information, and then we go out and explore. A key step in the exploration process is still putting boots on the ground and walk around with a hammer and chisel until we find gold, silver, copper, etc. If something interesting is found, it becomes a matter of assessing its economic potential by looking at features like size, grade, access, environmental impact, etc. and then proceed with more work, including drilling and modelling of the deposit. Usually, at this stage, we pass the project on to a larger company that has more resources and can bring the deposit into production. In the last few years, I have been working with Goliath Resource Ltd on its Golddigger Project in North West British Columbia, where we discovered a large shear zone that hosts significant gold-silver mineralization. In just over 6 months on the ground over the last 3 years we drilled 30,000+ meters and are planning an additional 25,000+ m for 2023.
You mentioned copper, silver and gold. These and other critical minerals are becoming more and more important with countries all over the World moving towards a green future. How do you see the future of mineral exploration in Canada and around the World?
Canada has launched the Critical Minerals Strategy, which has the goal of increasing the supply of responsibly sourced critical minerals and support the development of domestic and global value chains for the green and digital economy. With the World moving in a direction where things like electric cars and solar energy are more and more common, we will need to provide the resources needed to satisfy the demand. It is not a secret that metals like copper, silver, gold, lithium, and Rare Earth Elements (REE) are rare. Therefore, increasing the spending for responsible exploration and recycling (where viable) seems the best course of action. The same shift towards a greener and more sustainable world is occurring all over the world. I think we will see a lot more money being invested in resources in the near future, which will correspond to an uptick in exploration projects and production of these resources.
To satisfy the demand of critical metals such as copper, silver and gold in the (near) future, more deposits will have to be discovered. How has mineral exploration evolved over the last decade to cope with the demand and increase the chance of discovering new economic deposits?
It Is becoming harder and harder to find deposits. The “easy” ones have been found. There are mainly three factors that play a role in the discovery of new deposits and the production of the discovered resources:
The increase in demand for a particular resource drives the price up, which makes less-valuable deposits economic. For instance, a gold deposit might not be economic right now with the gold price at 1,800 US$/oz because the cost of production is higher than the revenue the deposit would generate. But if the gold price reaches 2,200 US$/oz the costs of production might be lower, and the deposit becomes economic.
Technology and production techniques improve over time. A few years ago, nobody would have thought that using machine learning and/or artificial intelligence would help with the discovery of new deposits, but today this is a reality. Technology and methods of extraction also have improved. So much that some mines are going back to the tailings to extract more resources that were left behind when the mine initially operated.
More money allows for more spending, which in turn increases the odds of discovering a new deposit. Investors are ready to take on more risk and spend more money. The more money gets put toward a certain project, the higher the chances of finding an economic deposit.
What do you think the mineral exploration and mining industries will look like in the future, in particular in Canada?
From my experience we are seeing a shift to more responsible exploration and mining. Canada has been following this trend for several years already, but now we start seeing it in other Countries as well. To satisfy the demand that is being created with the move towards a greener and more sustainable world, there will be a need for more workers in all sectors, including exploration, mining, automation, services etc. In addition, I think that to be able to keep up with the demand there is need for a change in mentality in society. People, Governments, and institutions need to understand that if we want to live in a society where we care for the environment and at the same time want to have a smartphone in our pockets at all times, we need to be prepared to invest more money in sustainable mineral exploration and mining to be able to achieve this. Canada is a good example where mineral exploration and mining are well regulated and it shows that the production of resources can occur in a sustainable and responsible way.
- Oil & Gas | The Bonatti’s projects in Canada: interview with Giulio Galleri, CEO at Bonatti Canada
- Energy: Oil&Gas and Green transition. Disputed pipelines raises tensions in US-Canada bilateral relations. A burden only for Alberta?
- Why Canada's Sustainable Development Strategy can become a model
Don't miss next articles