Mining giant Rio Tinto on what Canada needs for green transition

Kevin Carmichael’s Conversations: New urgency is about climate change, not about maximizing profit for shareholders

Get the latest from Kevin Carmichael straight to your inbox

Article content

Conversations is a series from Financial Post editor-in-chief Kevin Carmichael that draws on discussions with top decision makers on the big issues facing Canada and the economy. In today’s instalment, Ivan Vella, the head of Rio Tinto Ltd.’s operations in Canada.

Advertisement 2

Article content

Check your priors, economists say. Facts change. You’re asking for trouble if you assume the “laws” John Maynard Keynes set out in the 1930s, and the ones Milton Friedman devised in the 1970s, still apply today.

Article content

It’s a good rule for writing, too.

“We’ve got to go fast,” said Ivan Vella, who runs Rio Tinto Ltd.’s aluminum business out of Montreal. “I feel it every day when I get up. There’s a huge amount of pressure on us.”

We’d been talking about growth, one of Vella’s three primary objectives. That dialogue — as it tends to when you ask an executive about the obstacles to growing a business in Canada — had arrived at a critique of the country’s disinterest in doing anything about the thicket of federal, provincial and local regulation that keeps big things from getting done.

Advertisement 3

Article content

“One more point,” Vella said after listing tax credits (a “well-worn path but it works”), lower corporate taxes (“ultimately may help maintain the competitiveness of Canada and Canadian industry”) and direct grants (“great tool,” see Rio Tinto’s titanium operation in Sorel, Que.) as policy levers that governments could pull to ensure Canada wins a place in the historic shift to green energy.

“The other thing they can do is address the barriers, the things that slow us down in terms of progress,” he said.

Vella, an Australian who has worked for Rio Tinto for 25 years, overseeing projects in his home country and in Mongolia, said he’s talked to Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson about “permitting approvals, regulatory change that underpins rapid investment, rapid development.”

Article content

Advertisement 4

Article content

Pretty much what you’d expect from someone in the leadership group of one of the world’s biggest miners. There’s a global mining boom happening, and Canada has valuable stuff to mine. Allez hop! Time is money.

Vella’s other objectives are “culture,” including applying lessons the company learned from its disastrous decision in 2020 to destroy Aboriginal heritage sites in Australia’s Juukan Gorge while making way for an iron ore mine, and decarbonization.

But surely those two are for show, I thought, the kind of thing hard rock companies such as Rio Tinto say to keep soft rock governments like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s administration happy. When Vella talked about feeling a “huge amount of pressure,” I imagined a daily grilling from chief executive Jakob Stausholm on what Canada was doing to improve the lot of Rio Tinto’s shareholders.

Advertisement 5

Article content

But that’s not the source of the pressure Vella feels, and maximizing profit isn’t why he wants Canada to get its act together on regulation.

“I look at the climate change challenge,” he said. “The number that sits in my mind is the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. This is a technical number, 420 parts per million. When I was born, it was about 320 parts per million. I can get into a long conversation, but it doesn’t matter who created the carbon. It’s increasing a lot, it’s already causing and it’s going to create significant disruption for our planet.”

Vella added: “Every day we make it worse, it’s a bad day. So, what am I doing (to make it better) with all of the impact and influence at Rio Tinto Aluminium and Rio Tinto North America? How do we help that? And how do we target our investments and our innovation, our R&D to break through these new issues?”

Advertisement 6

Article content

Ivan Vella, the head of Rio Tinto Ltd.'s Canadian operations, outside the Montreal office. The mining giant's main play in Canada is aluminum.
Ivan Vella, the head of Rio Tinto Ltd.’s Canadian operations, outside the Montreal office. The mining giant’s main play in Canada is aluminum. Photo by John Mahoney/Postmedia

Rio Tinto has an iron ore operation in Labrador City, Nfld., but its main play in Canada is aluminum. It bought Alcan Inc. in 2007, and now hopes that asset will allow it to earn a premium from “green metal” as governments and customers demand products that come with a neutral carbon footprint. Alcan’s empire was built on hydro power, which has been cheap and readily available in Quebec for decades. That should give Rio Tinto an edge in the energy transition because it can supply a metal that has relatively little environmental impact. It’s also investing in aluminum recycling, research it hopes will allow it to commercialize the first zero-carbon aluminum smelting technology. It even has a website so consumers can trade the carbon footprint of the beverage cans they use.

Advertisement 7

Article content

Canada has begun telling itself a similar story about the green transition. We allowed our industrial strength to atrophy through the 1990s, and did essentially nothing to capitalize on the shift to a digital economy in the early 2000s. The shift to electrification amounts to a redo on several decades of failed industrial policies and short-sighted corporate strategies.

We could still screw it up. A conversation with Rio Tinto’s representative in Canada suggests complacency — the country’s fatal flaw — remains a threat to any outlook that has British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador, becoming important nodes in the new economy. Ownership of the minerals needed to build the green economy, a pool of talented people and the good fortune of having a trade agreement with the United States are fantastic advantages, but they might not be enough to maximize the opportunity.

Advertisement 8

Article content

For example, much of the effort — and money — of governments so far has been directed at persuading companies such as General Motors Co. and Volkswagen Group to build factories close to the mines that will supply the inputs needed to make electric vehicles and batteries.

But the miners lately have been reminding politicians that those minerals don’t rise to the surface on their own. Maybe that message is simply gamesmanship, a bid by lobbyists to get a share of the tens of billions of dollars on offer to help fight climate change. But Vella said policymakers should keep in mind that building a mine in Canada is more expensive than other places, and Canada isn’t the only place where minerals such as copper and lithium can be found.

Advertisement 9

Article content

Vella also acknowledged that Rio Tinto isn’t yet earning a premium on its green aluminum, a reminder that the pace of the green transition will be dictated by incentives and disincentives. Right now, old-fashioned dirty metal is still attractive because it’s cheaper. If Canada wants to emerge as a winner, it will have to get its act together.

“For me, it’s about focus,” Vella said. “The thing that I would encourage is, if we see certain projects that we want to move forward, they need the chaperone. They need the concierge to make sure things get done. We can’t afford to let that sit on someone’s desk for a week. This is urgent. Just keeping that drumbeat going can make an enormous difference.”

• Email: | Twitter: carmichaelkevin


Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

Join the Conversation




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *