Quebec mining companies are reeling over proposed legislation that would require them to produce studies on the feasibility of processing ore in the province before proceeding with a new project.
The requirement is part of the new Mining Act tabled on Wednesday, in which the Parti Québécois minority government is seeking to maximize the economic spin-offs from major new mining projects.
"Processing [ore] could create three to four times more jobs than simple extraction," Natural Resources Minister Martine Ouellet said. "We are aware that you can't process 100 per cent of the ore mined in Quebec. But between what is being processed now and 100 per cent, there is a great deal of room for improvement."
The Quebec Mining Association said it is not against promoting secondary industries around mining projects. But it lashed out at a plan it said would create an additional financial burden in a province that, according to the lobby group, has the highest production and transportation costs in the country.
"We aren't against processing the ore here, but companies need incentives. What we are seeing here are more coercive measures," said the association's president and director-general, Josée Méthot. "This is a requirement to conduct studies, which represents an additional burden for mining companies seeking to invest here."
Ms. Ouellet said four other provinces, including Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador, have similar requirements and that the PQ government would not hesitate to demand that companies process ore in Quebec.
The proposed legislation is a bid to get around provisions in the current law that allow companies to override municipal by-laws and proceed with projects wherever they like. It would let local authorities define zones where mining would be excluded. The minister would retain the power to allow projects to proceed if the municipal development plans failed to meet provincial objectives that have yet to be defined.
Each mining project would be subject to the province's environmental assessment board. Companies will also be required to provide financial guarantees for restoration at the end of the life of a mine.
The bill also states that, in targeted areas, mining claims will auctioned.
Environmentalists called the bill timid at best, saying it is riddled with compromises and bows to the powerful lobby of mining companies.
"This is far from being a true reform. It is nothing more than diluted measures, a series of compromises that are superficial at best," said Christian Simard, director-general of Nature Quebec. "The bill should have been tabled much earlier. We are demanding that Ms. Ouellet proceed now with the adoption of regulations that will require mining projects to immediately be reviewed by an environmental assessment board. Otherwise, several new projects will get a free ride."
After several months of consultation, Ms. Ouellet waited until the last few weeks of the spring session to table what the PQ had called an urgent bill. Adoption will not likely be until the fall, even though the Coalition Avenir Quebec has expressed support in principle.
"We offer all our co-operation so that the Mining Act can be adopted before the summer," CAQ leader François Legault said. "If need be, we are willing to prolong the session a week or two….But Ms. Ouellet wants to wait until the fall. That will further delay exploration and development [of mining projects]."
This would be the third recent attempt to adopt a new mining act. The PQ filibustered the last one under the Liberal government. The campaign led by Ms. Ouellet when she was natural resources critic in opposition lasted several months. The bill died when the election was called last summer.
The Liberals said they would not deliberately obstruct passage of the bill. However, in private some members indicated they would not make life easy for Ms. Ouellet, saying they have not forgotten her obstruction of their bill just last year.