FILE – The Pentagon is seen from Air Force One as it flies over Washington, March 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

MONTREAL — In Quebec’s Laurentians region, a few kilometres from a wildlife reserve and just outside the town of Duhamel, lies a source of one of the world’s most sought after minerals for manufacturing electric vehicle batteries: graphite.

Since Lomiko Metals Inc., a mining company based in Surrey, B.C., announced plans to build a graphite mine in the area, some residents living nearby have protested the project, fearing the potential harm to the environment. But opposition has only gained steam after locals found out last month that the Pentagon is involved in the project.

In May, Lomiko announced it received a grant of $11.4 million from the U.S. Department of Defence and another $4.9 million from Natural Resources Canada to study the conversion of graphite into battery-grade material for powering electric vehicles.

In its own announcement, the Pentagon said Lomiko’s graphite will bolster North American energy supply chains and be used for “defence applications,” words that make Duhamel resident Louis Saint-Hilaire uneasy.

“They were telling us it was an ecological project for making electric batteries but now we have serious doubts,” said Saint-Hilaire, co-spokesperson for environmental activist group Coalition Québécoise des Lacs Incompatibles Avec L’Activité Minière.

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Saint-Hilaire had feared the proposed mine would pollute the region’s many lakes; now he’s concerned the graphite in his town’s backyard will end up in American military equipment.

Claude Bouffard, coordinator of a separate environment group, Association pour la Protection de l’Environnement du Lac des Plages, says he isn’t necessarily against graphite mining, but he says his community hasn’t given its consent for Lomiko’s project.

“It’s almost like an invasion, a betrayal in some ways by the mining company, the government of Quebec and even worse, the government of Canada,” he said.

Responding to concerns, the company says it will be conducting feasibility and metallurgical studies over the next five years and will be subject to a review by Quebec’s environment consultations office, known as the BAPE. It says it plans to begin construction by 2027.

Quebec Minister of Natural Resources Maïté Blanchette Vézina didn’t say whether she approves of the Pentagon funding but says mining proposals have to be accepted by locals to go forward.

“Mining projects must go hand in hand with social acceptability,” Blanchette Vézina wrote in a statement.

Neither the Department of Defence nor the U.S. Consulate General responded to requests for comment about exactly how the Pentagon is involved in the project, or how the graphite will be used.

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Jean-François Boulanger, mineral engineering professor at Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue, says that the type of purified graphite Lomiko Metals plans to produce is indeed used for batteries; non-purified graphite can be used for a host of other applications, he said, including in steel production.

Graphite is a key mineral for manufacturing military equipment. A 2023 report by The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, a defence and security think tank based in the Netherlands, lists graphite as a critical mineral whose supply chain is under threat. The report said European militaries need graphite for fighter aircraft, battle tanks, submarines, artillery and ammunition.

Boulanger says it’s “unusual” in recent history for governments to openly declare that they are investing in a mine for defensive purposes.

Teresa Kramarz, co-director of the University of Toronto’s Environmental Governance Lab, says she isn’t surprised about the Department of Defence funding, adding that North American and European governments are investing heavily in critical minerals like graphite to be less dependent on Chinese exports. She says it’s part of a policy of establishing trade relationships with allies to secure supplies.

China is far and away the leader in graphite production. In 2022 Canada was ranked sixth, mining about one per cent of global production; China was at 66 per cent, according to Natural Resources Canada.

In a statement, Natural Resources Canada said the funding doesn’t mean Lomiko Metals will have to give the Canadian and American governments privileged access to the material produced.

But Boulanger said he would be “very surprised” if the governments of Canada and the United States aren’t in discussions with the company about securing its graphite.

Whatever the graphite is used for, Kramarz says people living near mines fear that the operations will displace ecosystems and lead surrounding communities to be economically dependent on them. As well, she said, residents also fear being displaced themselves when land is cleared for mines.

“People need to have serious say in what happens in their communities,” she said. “Those are the rules of democracy.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 9, 2024.

Joe Bongiorno, The Canadian Press

 

News from © The Canadian Press, 2024. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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