We’ve been working with miners in BC, Yukon and Alaska for over two decades and couldn’t agree more with Hecla Mining Company President and CEO Phillips Baker, Jr. who believes that the current push for reliable and sustainable supplies of the minerals critical to North America’s economic and green energy future offers a “golden opportunity” for Northern BC, Yukon, and Alaska to forge a mining alliance that tackles the challenges and unlocks the benefits these mineral-rich northern neighbours have to offer.
North of 60 Mining News – January 5, 2024 | By Shane Lasley Mining News
Is it time for BC, Yukon, Alaska to forge an alliance to unlock critical mineral wealth, usher in new era of prosperity in the 21st century?
The extremely mineral-rich geology that sweeps in a roughly 1,500-mile (2,600 kilometers) arc from the southern tip of British Columbia’s Golden Triangle, through the Yukon, and onward to Alaska’s west coast does not recognize the borders it spans. Likewise, the opportunities and challenges related to unlocking the precious, industrial, and critical mineral potential transcend the boundaries that divide this enormous mineral province on Canada and the United States’ northern frontier.
Hecla Mining Company President and CEO Phillips Baker, Jr. believes that the current push for reliable and sustainable supplies of the minerals critical to North America’s economic and green energy future offers a “golden opportunity” for Northern BC, Yukon, and Alaska to forge a mining alliance that tackles the challenges and unlocks the benefits these mineral-rich northern neighbors have to offer.
“This is really an opportunity for Alaska, it is an opportunity for the Yukon, it is an opportunity for British Columbia,” Baker said during a keynote speech at the 2023 Alaska Miners Association convention in November. “You have to take advantage of the fact that you have this money that is available for critical minerals – this is our time, we need to take advantage of that.”
Though Baker did not lay out details of what a mining alliance between Alaska, BC, and the Yukon would look like, he did say that involvement of the region’s First People is key. In addition, an alliance between these northern frontier mining provinces would be stronger with the participation of local and provincial governments; economic development and trade organizations; along with the mining companies looking to unlock the mineral potential along the golden arc that spans all three jurisdictions.
“You want to be in Alaska, Yukon, British Columbia – this is the place where there is a real opportunity to work together,” Baker said.
While Northern BC, Yukon, and Alaska have individually and collectively been legendary for their precious metals since the gold rush days of the 19th century, they remain a virtually untouched source of the minerals and metals needed for the energy transition and technological innovations of the 21st century.
In fact, aside from aluminum and potash, these three jurisdictions host deposits and prospects enriched with potentially mineable quantities of all the minerals considered critical to both Canada and the U.S.
“You have the Golden Triangle, you have the Tintina Gold Belt, you have the Ambler District,” said Baker.
The Tintina Gold Belt is a prime example of the mineral opportunities that defy borders and perceptions and would be made stronger by an Alaska, BC, and Yukon mining alliance.
While this massive mineral province that sweeps all the way from BC’s Golden Triangle to Alaska’s west coast is best known for the hundreds of million ounces of gold recovered or awaiting to be recovered, the Tintina Gold Belt also happens to be heavily enriched with a broad array of critical minerals.
The same can be said for the Golden Triangle, a Northern BC mining district that is a geologically unique extension of the Tintina Gold Belt.
At least 32 minerals and metals critical to the U.S. and Canada, plus silver and gold, have been found within this golden arc. Here is a list of the critical minerals found within this mineral province and their uses:
• Arsenic – semiconductors, lumber preservatives, and pesticides.
• Antimony – flame-proofing compounds, alloys, and rechargeable batteries.
• Bismuth – alloys, pigments, solar power, and atomic research.
• Cobalt – lithium-ion batteries, magnets, and superalloys.
• Copper – electrical wiring, generators, motors, and plumbing.
• Indium – LCD screen, electrical components, mirrors, and solar panels.
• Nickel – lithium-ion batteries, steel and other alloys, and corrosion-resistant coatings.
• Niobium – high-strength alloys and superconductors.
• Platinum group metals – five critical elements used to scrub emissions and produce hydrogen.
• Rare earths – a suite of 14 critical minerals used in magnets, batteries, and electronics.
• Tantalum – high-performance capacitors for electronics and superalloys.
• Tellurium – solar cells, thermoelectric devices, rubbers, glass, and alloys.
• Tin – protective coatings, alloys, superconducting magnets, and solder for electronics.
• Tungsten – wear-resistant metals, high-temperature electrodes, light-bulb filaments.
• Zinc – galvanized metal for corrosion resistance, alloys, and batteries.
The Golden Arc, however, only represents a roughly 150-mile- (240 kilometers) wide slice of Alaska, Yukon, and BC’s shared geological history that involves multiple mineral-rich fragments of the Earth’s crust known as terranes carried north by the Pacific tectonic plate crashing into this part of North America.
The terrane wreck of mineral-rich geological assemblages in BC, Yukon, and Alaska include:
• Wrangellia Superterrane is a group of geological assemblages that sweeps in an arc parallel to the south side of the Tintina Gold Belt and extends the entire length of the Southeast Alaska panhandle and is considered one of the best places on earth to find deposits rich in nickel, cobalt, copper, and platinum group metals.
• Selwyn Basin in the Yukon and associated Kechika Trough in Northern BC host rich deposits of zinc, tungsten, silver, germanium, and potentially gallium.
• Ambler Mining District in Northwest Alaska hosts world-class deposits enriched with copper, zinc, silver, gold, cobalt, germanium, and gallium.
• Seward Peninsula hosts the largest known deposit of graphite in the U.S., along with a wide array of other critical minerals.
This incredible mineral endowment in North America is why Baker considers BC, Yukon, and Alaska “the place to be, really in the world” for mining companies looking to supply North America with the minerals and metals needed for the 21st century.
“This is the place it should be happening; it should be happening in these three provinces,” he said.
Northern frontier challenges
Unlocking the rich stores of precious, industrial, and critical minerals and metals that make BC, Yukon, and Alaska the place to be for mining companies in the 21st century, however, is not without challenges that are inherent to developing mines in a northern area that could be considered a frontier in many ways.
These challenges include rugged and mountainous terrain created by the same dynamic and complex geological history that deposited the rich mineral deposits onto these northern mining jurisdictions over hundreds of millions of years and the winter weather that comes with mining in Northern BC, Yukon, and Alaska.
The nine large-scale metal mines operating in these three jurisdictions – Newmont Corp.’s Brucejack gold and Red Chris copper-gold mines in Northern BC; Victoria Gold Corp.’s Eagle gold mine and Hecla’s Keno Hill silver-zinc-lead mine in the Yukon; Hecla’s Greens Creek silver-zinc-lead-gold mine, Coeur Mining Inc.’s Kensington gold mine, Northern Star Resources Ltd.’s Pogo gold mine, Kinross Gold Corp.’s Fort Knox gold mine, and Teck Resources Ltd.’s Red Dog zinc-lead-silver-germanium mine in Alaska – demonstrate that the terrain and climatic conditions can be overcome.
The bigger challenge, however, is the limited infrastructure that comes with living and working on North America’s northern frontier.
The infrastructure challenge is compounded by borders that often inhibit coordination.
Baker reflected on historical cross-border activity that dates back to when pioneers would pass through Southeast Alaska and Northern BC on their way to gold-rich Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush.
“You don’t really see it now,” the Hecla CEO said. “I tried to get from Juneau to Whitehorse and it’s a tough task.”
While the capitals of Alaska (Juneau) and Yukon (Whitehorse) are only about 170 miles (270 kilometers) apart, the shortest flight between these northern hubs is a roughly 11-hour trek that will earn you 1,900 airline miles (3,100 kilometers) due to needing to fly south to Seattle and then back north. The shorter, nine-hour option is a ferry from Juneau to Skagway and a 110-mile (175 kilometers) drive between Skagway and Whitehorse.
“We are going to try to figure out how we can make that simpler to do,” said Baker.
One of the reasons why Hecla is trying to make Alaska-Yukon-Northern BC access easier is the company has interests in all three jurisdictions.
In addition to Greens Creek and Keno Hill, the largest silver mining company in the U.S., and soon to be in Canada, holds exploration stage mineral projects and interests in both Northern BC and Yukon.
“We are going to try as best we can to have these operations work together,” the Hecla CEO said.
Trilateral cooperation between Alaska, BC, and the Yukon goes well beyond just the synergetic advantages of being able to get miners more easily from one site to another.
Each of these mining jurisdictions offers key transportation and energy infrastructure links that, if coordinated, have the potential to offer benefits to all three.
Baker pointed to the port at Skagway in Southeast Alaska as a prime example of an asset that has cross-border implications and offers multijurisdictional opportunities.
Located just 50 road miles (80 kilometers) southeast of the Yukon border, Skagway is the nearest deep-sea port capable of delivering mineral concentrates produced at mines in the territory to refineries for processing into the metals the world needs.
“That is the place where materials from the Yukon need to come through, concentrates need to come through,” the Hecla CEO said. “Figuring out a way to have that be economic for the mines, and economic for and meet the needs of Skagway, is really important for us.”
This is why the Yukon government is investing C$21.4 million (US$15.8 million) to ensure that an ore loading dock and associated infrastructure are part of a port redevelopment project at Skagway.
“The Canadian government certainly sees this as an important thing for the Yukon, and they are putting money toward that,” Baker added.
Another benefit could come from tying together the electrical grids of all three jurisdictions. While BC’s Golden Triangle is anchored to the North American grid and fed with industrial-grade hydro electricity thanks to BC Hydro’s Northwest Transmission Line, the Alaska and Yukon power are microgrid islands.
In Alaska, policymakers and economic development organizations have studied the potential of linking five microgrids serving communities along the Southeast Alaska Panhandle, with the ultimate goal of tying to BC’s Northwest Transmission Line to the east and Yukon’s microgrid to the north.
According to a 2020 document outlining the proposal, the Southeast Alaska intertie would “connect current and future mines and docks to lower cost, locally produced hydropower … with future trade to Yukon and North America grid.”
It is proposed that if the intertie were completed, electricity generated at some of the more than 200 undeveloped hydropower sites in Southeast Alaska could be “exported through Yukon and British Columbia to feed U.S. West Coast electricity needs for the next 100 years.”
In addition to providing economic benefits and delivering more affordable power to Southeast Alaska residents through the 21st century and beyond, this proposal has the potential to provide low-carbon and low-cost hydroelectricity to any mines that plugged into the interconnected BC-Yukon-Alaska interconnected grid.
Forging a Golden Arc alliance
Can a Golden Arc alliance be forged? And, if so, what should such a partnership between BC, Yukon, and Alaska look like?
The answer to both questions might lie in a recent mining alliance between the Tahltan and Nisga’a First Nations in Northern BC.
During the 2023 Association for Minerals Exploration Roundup held in Vancouver last January, these neighboring First Nations unveiled the Treaty Creek Limited Partnership, a coalition that strengthens their leadership when it comes to mineral exploration and mining in the Golden Triangle.
“Working together can only optimize participation in the industry while ensuring we are providing those capable with the support and tools to ensure they can build sustainable, lifetime careers in the industry,” said Andrew Robinson, director appointed to the Treaty Creek Partnership by the Nisga’a Nation.
The Treaty Creek Partnership was established by Tahltan Nation Development Corp. and Nisga’a Growth Corp., the business arms of the two First Nations, to leverage the enormous economic benefits of Seabridge Gold Inc.’s world-class KSM copper-gold mine project, as well as future mining projects developed in Tahltan and Nisga’a traditional territories, which covers most of BC’s Golden Triangle.
“On behalf of both the Nisga’a Nation and the Tahltan Nation, I would like to acknowledge Seabridge for their support and encouragement for the creation of our Treaty Creek Limited Partnership, and their willingness to actively engage and work with our partnership on their KSM project, the world’s largest undeveloped gold project,” said TNDC Chair Carol Danielson.
Forging similar partnerships that include representatives from First Nations and Alaska Natives; local, provincial, state, and territorial governments; trade and economic development organizations; and mining companies could realize benefits that go beyond establishing a premier mining jurisdiction capable of delivering the minerals and metals needed for the energy transition and technological innovations of the 21st century.
Such would also bring together all the stakeholders needed to coordinate infrastructure and economic development across the Golden Arc, elevating the northern mining frontier of the 19th and 20th centuries to a reliable North American hub of minerals and metals needed for the 21st century – ushering in a new era of prosperity for the people of all three jurisdictions.
Baker said there are several American and Canadian companies working in one or more of these premier mining districts that have an interest in seeing a stronger Northern BC-Yukon-Alaska mining alliance.
“There are a lot of opportunities for the companies to help with this process,” the mining executive invited. “Engage us, help us see this happen.”