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Maybe the NWT can hit its emissions target after all – when Diavik closes

Last modified: December 9, 2022 at 8:11am


The Northwest Territories’ battle to meet its 2030 emissions reduction target may actually be a breeze: all it could take is one diamond mine’s closure.

Documents released this month suggest the territory’s stated actions are leaving it well off the pace required to reduce emissions by 30 percent compared to 2005 levels in the next seven years.

As MLAs scrutinized the broader NWT energy strategy on Thursday, Robert Sexton – the territorial government’s energy director – made the problem clear: the NWT needs to find another 200 kilotonnes of emissions reduction annually to meet the goal.

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Guess what generates around 200 kilotonnes of emissions annually and is soon going away?

An aerial view of the Diavik diamond mine. Emily Blake/Cabin Radio

“Quite frankly, we’re probably going to meet [the target] and the only reason we’re going to meet it is because Diavik is going to close down,” said Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly at Thursday’s briefing.

The Diavik diamond mine, northeast of Yellowknife, generated 201 kilotonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 and 193 kilotonnes in 2020 according to reports produced by consultants on the mine’s behalf.

Diavik is scheduled to cease production by 2025 and, unlike at the neighbouring Ekati and Gahcho Kué mines, Diavik owner Rio Tinto has not publicized any effort to further prolong the mine’s life. (Closure in 2025 already marks an extension on initial forecasts.)

The economic impact of that closure will be significant: hundreds of workers and their families living in Yellowknife and other NWT communities will lose well-paid jobs with no replacement mine or industry of Diavik’s scale on the horizon.

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But the environmental impact will be, by the NWT’s standards, a huge and immediate drop in emissions. Even with an on-site wind farm heralded for its innovation, Diavik has remained a greedy annual consumer of diesel to keep people warm and the mine functioning through northern winters – more so than many of the territory’s communities.

A winter road staging area at Diavik is seen in a GNWT inspector's photo
A winter road staging area at Diavik is seen in a GNWT inspector’s photo.

You can’t find a transparent reference to Diavik’s closure anywhere in the NWT government’s 2030 energy strategy or its latest energy action plan, possibly because of the awkwardness involved in advertising the closure of a massive economic driver as a pathway to emissions reduction.

But Sexton, briefing MLAs on Thursday, did indirectly acknowledge the topic. In trying to contextualize the NWT’s apparent likelihood of missing its target, he stated that the trend line for emissions reduction “wouldn’t capture large changes in the mining industry going forward.”

“It certainly doesn’t look good if the only reason we’re going to meet the target is because Diavik is going to shut down,” O’Reilly continued, raising a fresh concern about that outcome: “And then nobody else can really start production, if any of the juniors ever come online.”

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Strategy and target to be reviewed

While the NWT doesn’t have Diavik-scale diamond mines in the offing, there are various critical minerals and gold projects attempting to get off the ground. Just as Diavik’s closure isn’t clearly factored into the NWT’s emissions reduction plan, neither is the creation of fresh pollution through new mines, much as prospective operators of those mines have pledged to limit their carbon emissions.

Initially, the Taltson hydro expansion was the emissions silver bullet in the 2030 energy strategy, promising to swallow up the remaining gap to the target by connecting North Slave mines to South Slave hydro at the cost of a billion dollars or more.

But Taltson remains unfunded, there aren’t any new, large North Slave mines knocking on the door, and the NWT government this week told the CBC the project now cannot realistically happen by 2030.

The energy strategy still calls for the hydro expansion to reduce emissions by more than 200 kilotonnes by 2030, which MLAs picked up on during Thursday’s briefing.

“The amount of displacement attributed to Taltson, I think we all agree, is no longer a realistic number,” Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson observed.

Sexton said the territory will soon embark on a broad review of the strategy because “the world has changed a great deal” since its original release in 2018.

But he cautioned MLAs that for other reasons, the NWT is about to need a whole lot of electricity from either Taltson or somewhere else.

“It looks increasingly like we’re going to need a lot more electricity generation, in some form, to meet electrification demands. Where that comes from? I don’t set those priorities,” Sexton said.

He offered heating as an example. Using electricity from renewable sources to heat buildings instead of fossil fuels would make a big dent in the NWT’s annual emissions. But Sexton said moving a third of the territory’s current heating load to electricity would require doubling the electricity generation currently available in a series of micro-grids not connected to the south.

Electric vehicles, meanwhile, are surging in popularity and will bring much greater demand for power.

How the NWT meets that demand and how it reduces emissions are part of the 2030 strategy, which Sexton said must be overhauled in the coming review – with the help of public engagement.

“We’re looking for new ideas on how to do this,” he said on Thursday.

“Is this the right approach? Are the targets right? Do we commit to targets before we know if we can reach them or not? I mean, that’s a legitimate question.”