Damaging the natural environment comes with consequences. Any industry that does so outside of clearly defined regulatory approvals can face stiff penalties that threaten the livelihood of their operation. Even when operating in compliance with regulations, damage caused by industrial activity can have negative consequences for the living things and ecological connections that create the biodiversity present near an operation.
In the mining sector, a lack of past regulations, poor management, insolvency and mine abandonment have created substantial environmental liabilities in Canada and around the world. In some cases, governments have had to commit millions of dollars to address adverse impacts to the environment from abandoned mines, including significant adverse impacts to biodiversity. These past issues combined with concern over potential for similar impacts of existing and future projects has thrust the mining industry into the limelight in a negative way. First Nations and the public are strongly focused on biodiversity in mining, and the potential and actual impacts of mining on biodiversity are front and center in the media.
The process of mineral extraction in mining generally makes it impossible not to cause some damage to the surrounding environment and given this, how can mining businesses operate responsibly knowing that damaging nature is, in some instances, unavoidable?
The mining industry is beginning to answer this question by stepping up its environmental game, including in the area of biodiversity management. “Biodiversity management is an increasingly central part of most mining operations in Canada and globally,” says Dr. Kyle Knopff, Principal, Senior Wildlife Biologist for WSP in Canada. “The mitigation hierarchy of avoid, minimize, rehabilitate and offset is gaining increasing traction within the sector,” says Knopff. “Many mining companies have internalized the importance of biodiversity and have specific ESG goals related to it, including objectives of achieving a net gain for biodiversity because of their operations. The number of companies setting such lofty goals is growing steadily.”
Although lofty corporate ESG goals are admirable, achieving net gain for biodiversity is challenging and requires carefully planned actions that are also consistent with increasingly stringent government regulations and international good practice guidelines. The mining sector in Canada already has a significant set of government regulations that it must comply with that relate to biodiversity, including the Fisheries Act, SARA, Migratory Birds Convention Act, provincial/territorial acts, and more. The level of regulatory responsibility varies depending on size of mine and industry. Some smaller mines and mine expansions fall under provincial jurisdiction, whereas large mines require federal approval. Operations typically are monitored by provincial regulators.
And regulations related to biodiversity continue to evolve. “There is a shift happening,” says Knopff, “one that puts greater emphasis on biodiversity during permitting and operations of mines in Canada”. Among other changes, biodiversity offset requirements designed to address all residual impacts of a project and achieve no net loss for some biodiversity elements (e.g., wetlands, species at risk) are becoming more prevalent, as seen with the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada’s recent Tailored Impact Statement Guidelines (TISG) template.
With the increase in expectations for better biodiversity outcomes, permitting mining projects in Canada has become more challenging. Proposed projects that fail to demonstrate acceptable biodiversity outcomes in full compliance with environmental regulations can be rejected, forcing these operations to take a more thorough approach to environmental protections and offsets. “Biodiversity should be important to everyone,” says Knopff. “But it is especially important to mining companies because failure to adequately account for it and manage it can result in fines, suspended operations, permitting rejection, and more. The consequences are too steep not to include biodiversity management as an integral part of every mining operation.”
To continue to improve biodiversity outcomes in the mining sector, Knopff has a few suggestions. “There needs to be more stringent application of the mitigation hierarchy, especially in the early design phases. We need to establish more confidence around, and testing of, mitigation actions designed to benefit biodiversity (i.e., proof of concept), especially if proposing novel approaches or untested ideas during permitting. And we also need to see more advanced planning, consultation, and buy in around offsetting.”
Biodiversity is suffering globally because of human activity. By acting to mitigate impacts from mining, corporations can demonstrate their commitment to sustainability. This demonstration will be especially effective where careful avoidance and minimization are applied followed by innovative reclamation programs that create quality habitat for fish, wildlife, plants and other biodiversity elements and finally offsets to address any residual impacts.
Failure to act can result in reduced permitting success, harm corporate image, and potentially limit investor interest in the company. These have significant adverse financial outcomes for mining companies.
To learn more about how WSP in Canada can help your mining operation with your biodiversity needs, contact Kyle Knopff and visit our biodiversity hub