Prospecting the prospects

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Minerals exploration seeks a core to the future... could it lead to Canada’s first tin mine?

From Rocks and Minerals Canada, January/ February 1981

Joan Pipher

The needle is smaller, the haystack is bigger, says geologist Ernie Gallo. “Compared with the thousands of acres of an oilfield, mineral deposits are smaller –only a few acres –though we might be looking in an area of millions of acres. And in minerals, you have to drill more holes.” Even then, only about one in a thousand prospects becomes a mine.

Shell began its mineral treasure hunt in 1974, exploring for uranium in the Northwest Territories (N.W.T) and Ontario, copper in N.W.T. and zinc in Newfoundland and New Brunswick.

The innovation was a response to changing conditions in the oil industry. With Canada’s petroleum resources being depleted, it made sense for a resource-based company to check out other natural resources.

Why minerals? Partly because they’re there. Canada is mineral-rich. Also, Shell has expertise in exploration, research and world-wide marketing.

The mineral department’s activity has spread during the past five years to the search for zinc and copper in Manitoba, Quebec, and Ontario; uranium –the most likely future energy source –in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Labrador; and discoveries of molybdenum and tungsten –steel alloys –in British Columbia and tin in Nova Scotia. Currently, Shell has one million hectares under exploration for minerals, including 600,000 hectares for uranium.

“We are looking for all the major minerals,” says Gallo, one of 12 geologists covering an area from Manitoba to Newfoundland.

“As one looks for blueberries in a blueberry patch, we look in areas suitable for the minerals we are trying to find”.

Pinpointing the area involves search of government maps and other data; air and ground surveys to measure magnetic conditions, radioactivity or the amount of radon gas emitted which may indicate the presence of uranium. Among other innovations, Shell is developing a new aerial electromagnetic system for prospecting.

This year the department’s budget has climbed to $12 million, partly because of rising costs and partly because of the boom in metal prices. The competition is keen. Shell rubs shoulders with three or four companies in each area.

“We haven’t seen this much activity in the industry since we started,” says Ben Baldwin, manager, minerals exploration.

Based in Calgary, Baldwin coordinates the department’s three sections: uranium headed by Robert de Chazal; western, headed by Jack Brander and eastern, headed by Dave McAuslan working out of Toronto.

The work, involving extensive travel, sometimes brings hair raising incidents. Recently, Baldwin and Brander were on a routine helicopter trip over the Rockies to Castlegar, B.C. Suddenly, the pilot had to turn off the engine to control the machine. Descending at a steep angle, the helicopter hit the ground hard and bounced. “When this happens, you hope for a flat landing place,” says Baldwin, veteran of a similar incidence elsewhere. This time Brander ended up with Baldwin in his lap.

Bears are another hazard, particularly in the west where the unpredictable grizzly roams. Recently, geologist Gordon Moffat had a close encounter with a grizzly coming over a mountain. Fortunately, the bear had business elsewhere, and lumbered by within a few feet of the startled Moffat, who took off at a fast pace downhill.

Exploration often involves living in small town motels or camping in the bush for weeks at a time. “You find out early if you can’t hack the bugs,” says Gallo. Those who can’t switch to over livelihoods.

He recalls setting up camp in an abandoned trapper’s cabin. Warmth from the portable oil stove brought two skunks out of hibernation under the floor. “We fed them chocolate bars and bacon and got along fine,” he grins.

One of the perks of life in the bush is fishing. But above all, the lure of striking a billion-dollar deposit is the attraction.

“Diamond drilling is the culmination of the geologist’s efforts,” Gallo says. “It’s the test of all the theories.” Core samples raised in diamond drilling are used to evaluate tonnage and mineral content.

Most promising for Shell is the tin discovery in the East Kemptville area of Nova Scotia. Here, completed diamond drilling programs indicate reserves of 25 million tonnes of ore containing 0.2 percent tin. More tests and mine feasibility studies are planned for 1980. If production were initiated, East Kemptville would become Canada’s first tin mine.

Much depends on the economics of extraction. “If the tin-bearing mineral is fine-grained, it could prove too expensive to separate from waste rock. But, research in England on a new flotation method, and refining of existing processes in Australia, could help Shell at East Kemptville,” says McAuslan.

Meanwhile, analysis of the find continues. Settled into the small community of about 400 people, the work largely employs local residents.

The department has contributed to the firehall building fund. Also of local significance was the discovery of an arsenic-bearing mineral outside Yarmouth. It led to analysis of a school’s water supply, and subsequent change to another source. Core samples reveal many secrets –not all of them desirable.