Alberta set to join "colossal geopolitical struggle" as provincial, federal funding pour into Critical Minerals Strategy

Despite their political differences, Justin Trudeau and Danielle Smith agree on at least one issue: they want companies to start pulling lithium, cobalt and other critical minerals out of the ground ASAP. And while Danielle Smith is doing everything humanly possible to extend the reign of oil and gas in Alberta, critical minerals offer up dreams of a new gold rush, especially as the American empire becomes even more aggressive towards the one country that controls most of the world’s critical mineral supply–China.

Danielle Smith was touting the economic possibilities of lithium back in 2019 and her interview subject for the column was Chris Doornbos, the CEO of Calgary-based E3 Metals. The company identifies breaking China’s lithium dominance as a major reason for its investments. A profile of Doornbos begins: “China has a near-monopoly on the supply of refined lithium, a critical component in EV [electric vehicle] batteries. Chris Doornbos, 41, aims to change that.”

Founded in 2016, E3 Metals has been very busy acquiring government funding. According to the Alberta Lobbyist Registry, the company has received $600,000 in funding from Alberta Innovates and $27 million from the Canadian government. E3 has requested another $1.9 million in funds from the Albertan government.

E3 opened its first lithium extraction pilot project in September 2023. Located east of the town of Olds in central Alberta, Doornbos claims the Clearwater Lithium Project will be able to process 150,000 tonnes of lithium annually, which will be sold to battery producers and EV manufacturers.

Notably, the project has received funding from Calgary’s Imperial Oil, which is majority-owned by US oil giant ExxonMobil—which points to US corporate interest in Alberta’s mineral riches and broader American interest in using Canadian resources to counter China’s superiority.

Image from E3 Lithium corporate presentation

In December 2022, Ottawa announced its $3.8 billion Critical Minerals Strategy (CMS). The aims of it are twofold: 1) to take advantage of soaring demand for minerals needed to produce high-tech “sustainable” energies and products, and 2) to challenge China’s dominance over these resource supply chains. 

In May, Trudeau and President Joe Biden put out a joint statement which specifically talked about identifying, securing and developing critical minerals extraction and manufacturing in both countries to “diversify supply chains essential to clean energy, electric vehicles, semiconductors, aerospace, and defense.”

Meanwhile, the US government is deepening its involvement in the Canadian mining sector. In November 2022, the CBC reported that the US military was “quietly soliciting” applications from Canadian mining companies seeking American funding. The CBC noted that these solicitations from the US were drawing Canada into “a colossal geopolitical struggle” between the US and China.

In March 2023, Joe Biden renewed the offer of US funding during a visit to Ottawa. For their part, Canadian officials have been amenable to American involvement, providing the Biden administration with a list of 70 projects.

Now the struggle is coming to Alberta. 

Alberta’s mineral strategy is obviously not about environmental sustainability, but the money-making potential of these minerals in the context of US-China rivalry. Demand is high and only rising. In addition to ExxonMobil, the critical minerals rush in Alberta is drawing in actors who have lined their pockets defending the oil and gas industry, namely the Hill & Knowlton PR firm, which is currently lobbying the UCP government–including the Department of Energy and Mines, the Alberta Energy Regulator, and the Premier’s Office–on behalf of E3 Metals.

Another mining company, LithiumBank Resources, began lobbying the Alberta government in October 2023 to “promote lithium production and related clean tech.” There is also an oil and gas connection behind LithiumBank’s lobbying activities. Their PR firm, Ian Murray & Company, brags on their website about “proven hands-on [experience] across the oil and gas sector in western Canada” and “immense experience with oil sands projects and related issues.” 

IMC President Ian Murray, who is lobbying the UCP government on behalf of LithiumBank, is also a past president of Fairness Alberta, an organization which bemoans the “unjust transition” away from oil and gas and claims “Canada shutting in our oil and gas will make Canada much poorer, will not meaningfully lower global emissions, and actually endangers the world.” Fairness Alberta does not disclose its funders but its executive director is Bill Bewick, a long-time ultra-conservative political operative who worked on Ted Morton’s Alberta PC leadership campaigns.  

A third mining company, the Ontario-based Fortune Minerals, recently announced government funding for the development of a refinery in Alberta. The refinery will process gold, bismuth, copper, and, more importantly, cobalt mined from Fortune’s NICO deposit in the Northwest Territories.

Cobalt is an essential component in the lithium-ion batteries that power laptops, cellphones, and EVs. As such, the mineral is inextricable from geopolitics. Chinese companies dominate global cobalt production, meaning that the US and Canadian governments’ efforts to expand cobalt production in North America necessarily aim to reduce China’s influence over critical mineral supply chains.

Alberta’s mineral strategy and action plan is relatively new, but it will be a significant initiative going forward. This plan is tied up in the geopolitics of the US-China rivalry, American military funding, domestic and US oil money, and shady PR firms. Canadian mining capital—notorious in Latin America and Africa for its heinous labour and environmental practices—is also keen to extract these high-demand minerals.

While Alberta remains Canada’s oil and gas champion, aggressive US geopolitics and profit-driven Canadian companies have increased the provincial government’s interest in critical minerals. Albertans should keep a close eye on this sector as it develops in the province.