Northwest Territories, a vast expanse of mountains, forests and tundra, has been slower to experience the surge in mineral exploration and development activities that has swept across Yukon Territory and Nunavut in recent years. But the mining industry is turning its attention to the 1.17 million square kilometers (431,162 square miles) Arctic land – roughly two-thirds the size of Alaska – that lies in between.
Permits have been issued for new areas of exploration and claims are being staked in places where such activity has been absent for more than 20 years, while longtime explorers are returning to existing projects and new entrants are picking up prospective ground. Even in regions where large portions of Crown lands are engaged in land claim withdrawals, many option agreements and exchanges of grandfathered claims have occurred in recent months, according to the Northwest Territories Geoscience Office.
“The activity this year is about comparable to that of last year,” said Karen Gochnauer, a district geologist at NTGO. “The advanced projects are going forward with permitting, and grassroots exploration is under way.”
“There are no new plays this year,” said Gochnauer. “Certainly, there’s interest in the Cordilleran mountains, lead-zinc-iron and copper plays branching out from the Selwyn project.
Gochnauer also observed that Seabridge Gold Corp. expanded its exploration of the F.A.T. deposit at the Courageous Lake project.
In 2012, the NT geoscience office undertook geochemical baseline studies and geological mapping in the Mackenzie Mountains (Bonnet Plume project) and completed a geochemical survey in the Colville Lake area.
Gochnauer said the work will provide baseline geology and geochemistry for prospective base and precious metal exploration. “Part of this year was spent mapping and assessing volcanic terranes prospective for prospective volcanogenic massive sulphides (zinc-lead-copper +/- precious metals),” she explained. “As part of the selection process, we have input from industry on the projects we carry out.”
A number of advanced exploration projects made progress toward production in 2012, including Avalon Rare Metals Inc.’s Nechalacho rare earth element project at Thor Lake, Fortune Minerals Ltd.’s Nico gold-cobalt-bismuth-copper project, Tamerlane’s Pine Point Project, Tyhee Gold Corp.’s Yellowknife Gold Project, Seabridge’s Courageous Lake project and the Gahcho Kué diamond project being developed in a joint venture by DeBeers Canada (51 percent) and Mountain Province Diamonds Inc. (49 percent).
A spurt of interestTom Hoefer, executive director of the NWT & Nunavut Chamber of Mines said a few companies initiated new exploration programs in 2012, including Copper North Mining Corp., which is exploring the Redstone property in the Deh Cho region in the west; BFR Copper & Gold Inc., which did some work in the Tłįchǫ region of the Great Slave District.
BFR secured three-year prospecting permits in February for more than 1,465 square kilometers (565 square miles) of claims in the area.
“We’ve also seen some interest from Platinum Group Metals Ltd. in platinum prospects (west of Lac de Gras, and a bigger gold play from Nighthawk Gold Corp., formerly known as Merc International Minerals Ltd.,” Hoefer said. “Peregrine Diamonds Ltd. came in and drilled four targets on their claims and hit three kimberlite pipes, and Tamerlane Ventures Inc. was to do some work east of Great Slave Lake on Diamond Mountain.”
PGM purchased the Providence copper-nickel-cobalt-platinum group metals property located 70 kilometers (43 miles) west of the Diavik Diamond Mine from Arctic Star Exploration in September 2011 and planned a step-out drill program to further define the extents of a known copper-nickel-cobalt-PGM mineralized zone in 2012.
Of the four operating mines in Northwest Territories – Ekati, Diavik, Snap Lake and Cantung – only North American Tungsten Mines Corp. Ltd.’s Cantung tungsten mine reported significant exploration activity in 2012.
Natural Resources Canada released a preliminary estimate for 2012 mineral exploration spending in Northwest Territories based on the spending plans of mining companies. NRCan projected C$124 million planned spending territory wide, up 18 percent from C$105.4 million in comparable expenditures in 2011.
By contrast, NRCan projected a 7 percent decrease in mineral exploration spending in 2012 to C$285 million in Yukon Territory and a 13.3 percent increase to C$568.6 million in comparable outlays in Nunavut in 2012.
“NRCan puts out figures twice a year, in March and in November, so we’ll know in a month or so” whether the actual spending met expectations, Hoefer said.
Chamber, government initiativesHoefer also said the relatively flat mining activity in Northwest Territories, despite its rich treasure trove of mineral resources, is a signal that the industry is encountering problems investing in the territory.
“We use the level of mining activity to help flag issues here in the NWT,” Hoefer said. “When we have two northern neighbors doing well, why are we not doing so well?”
Among the reasons: The complexity of regulatory issues and the unsettled land claims in the territory. Hoefer said the Canadian government is expected to approve legislation this fall aimed at improving the environment for mining in Northwest Territories.
“The biggest change is with timelines. We’re expecting two-year timelines for the regulatory process,” he said.
Hoefer said the chamber also recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Akaitcho Dene First Nations designed to spur economic development and mineral development strategies.
“We found that expectations were mismatched with capabilities. We reached out to them, and found they were reaching out, too, to see if we can address the issues,” he explained.
Hoefer said the chamber is now working with the First Nation on an action plan to come up with an innovative approach to bridge the gap to be able to reach out to investors.
“We also urged the new (territorial) government to work with the Akaitcho to get engagement strategies in place to launch next year,” he said.
The territorial government, meanwhile, spent 2012 aggressively addressing remaining obstacles to devolution in Northwest Territories, seeing greater autonomy for the northern territory as crucial to spurring economic development activity.
NWT officials also reinstated the Prospectors Grubstake Program in 2012 after a five-year hiatus. The funding encourages grassroots mineral exploration by helping NWT prospectors defray costs for a wide range of prospecting activities. Individual prospectors may be eligible to receive grubstakes up to C$5,000 over 5 years.