Quebec Government Commissions Market Studies to Justify Lowering Nickel Air Emission Standards

In 2018, following lobbying efforts by mining companies such as Glencore to justify a more than five-fold increase in nickel air emission limits, the Quebec Liberal Party in power commissioned SNC-Lavalin and Deloitte "to conduct a comparative analysis of the regulatory framework [for nickel] and to advise" the government.

According to the Deloitte report, which remained confidential until December 2021, when the new nickel air emission regulations were published, one of the "key findings of the study" was that "a nickel standard more restrictive than elsewhere in the world and in the rest of Canada could make additional investments in Quebec in the nickel sector less attractive, at a time when the global context appears more favourable to the development of new projects. Notably, Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Australia could be potential alternatives."[1] This justification of "attracting investments" is presented even as the price of nickel has risen from U.S.$7,000 per tonne in 2016 to over U.S.$22,000 per tonne on February 24, the start of the conflict in Ukraine.

What these mining oligopolies are actually concerned about is that their already staggering profits may be threatened by peoples' and Indigenous nations' movements opposing the plunder of Mother Earth's natural resources and the pollution of the natural environment. This was expressed by way of another observation made in the Deloitte report:

"The combination of the threshold and frequency requirements of Quebec nickel standards exposes nickel mining companies to repeated overruns. The publication of these results could raise concerns within surrounding local populations and Indigenous communities and even call into question the social acceptability of projects. Communities could demand a reopening of their impact and benefit agreement in order to be compensated for this perceived risk to their environment and health, and residents around new mine sites could go so far as to put pressure to end mining activities or at least for potentially substantial investments in additional mitigation measures."[2]

In other words, the regular publication of airborne nickel emission rates is making the mining oligopolies worry that "surrounding populations and Indigenous communities [will] question the social acceptability of projects" once they realize that these mining companies are repeatedly exceeding the scientifically rigorous standards in place for airborne nickel. These same local populations and communities will rightly demand that these mining companies put in place mitigation measures that will reduce the presence of nickel sulphide in the air but that will compromise their astronomical profits.

It is precisely this concern that the Deloitte report alludes to when it talks of "looking at the potential impacts of the current nickel standard in Quebec." The report states that "the current nickel standard could call into question the social acceptability of projects, hinder their competitiveness and jeopardize significant economic benefits for Quebec."[3]

To set the stage for the "social acceptability" of the new standard, a spokesperson for Quebec's Ministry of the Economy and Innovation, in an interview with Radio-Canada on December 27, 2021, said: "The implementation of additional mitigation measures [to minimize nickel emissions] in response to potential standard overruns would reduce the global competitiveness of nickel mines in Quebec and could eventually have them slow down their activities temporarily or even permanently."

In other words, the priority for the Legault government is the mining companies' quest for new markets for their products internationally and the pursuit of maximum profit for these large private interests. It is not the health of the residents of Limoilou and the mining and Indigenous communities, who become "collateral damage."

Thus, in order to satisfy the demands of these global oligopolies who see the world as belonging to them, the Quebec government has rendered the standard for airborne nickel five times less stringent rather than require that these wealthy oligarchs put in place mitigation measures that, from a technological point of view, already exist. Such measures are even mentioned in the Deloitte report: a closed building to store nickel concentrate, a dust collection and dust suppression system, a wet scrubber, a control curtain surrounding the equipment drop-off area to control dust projections, sufficient watering of the equipment to prevent dust emissions, regular cleaning and watering of the loading areas, etc. Such mitigation measures would make it possible to capture at the source the nickel sulphide dust that would otherwise escape into the air.

For the Legault government, nickel is "a key component for the electrification of transportation" and for its strategy to develop the lithium battery industry for electric vehicles. However, not a word is said about nickel's widespread use in applications related to the aerospace industry, whose military component is becoming increasingly important.

Here is what the United States Geological Survey (USGS) says about nickel and its use:

"About 65 per cent of the nickel consumed in the Western World is used to make austenitic stainless steel [steel containing chromium, nickel and other elements such as molybdenum, titanium and niobium -- TML Ed. Note]. Another 12 per cent goes into superalloys (e.g., Inconel 600) or nonferrous alloys (e.g., cupronickel). Both families of alloys are widely used because of their corrosion resistance. The aerospace industry is a leading consumer of nickel-base superalloys. Turbine blades, discs and other critical parts of jet engines are fabricated from superalloys. Nickel-base superalloys are also used in land-based combustion turbines, such as those found at electric power generation stations." [4]


1. Deloitte, Final Report: Economic Impact Assessment of the Nickel Standard and Industry in Quebec, December 3, 2018, p.37. 

2. Ibid, p.37

3. Ibid, p.29

4. USGS, Nickel Statistics and Information.

This article was published in
Volume 52 Number 7 - July 17, 2022

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